Baltimore's most successful middle school is laying off staff and shortening its school day to meet demands of a teachers union contract in what is one of the first major disputes over teacher pay between a charter school and a union.
KIPP Ujima Village Academy, based on a model that has forged a successful track record among poor students in more than a dozen states, has been violating a contract requiring teachers to be paid more if they work extra hours, school and union leaders acknowledge.
After seven years of ignoring the issue, the Baltimore Teachers Union told the charter school earlier this year that it must pay its teachers 33 percent more than other city school teachers because they were working nine hours and 15 minutes a day, as well as every other Saturday. The standard workday for teachers is seven hours and five minutes.
KIPP leaders say the majority of its more than two dozen teachers are comfortable with their hours and pay, but the union spokeswoman, Jessica Aldon, said the union was responding to complaints.
Advocates say the confrontation goes to the heart of what they see as a major weakness of Maryland's charter school law: Teachers must be part of the union in their school district and subject to the contract. If the issue is not resolved, KIPP may ask state lawmakers to allow schools greater flexibility in determining teachers' pay and workdays.
KIPP has been paying its teachers 18 percent above the salary scale, but could not afford to increase all teachers' salaries by 33 percent, according to Jason Botel, executive director of KIPP Baltimore. So it decided to stagger staff starting times and cut back on the hours students are in school when they return to classes next month.
Students will attend classes for eight hours in the next school year, and Saturday classes have been canceled. The four layoffs include one music and one art teacher who were recently let go, as well as two staff members who worked with special education and struggling students.
Botel said he hopes to negotiate a compromise that will provide more flexibility "for the good of the teachers and the viability of the KIPP model in Baltimore."
The changes have been hard, he said, but teachers worked out a schedule they believe will have the least effect on the school's 340 students in the months ahead. However, he said, the situation is not viable long-term.
In a union contract ratified by the city school board last week, the union agreed to the idea of allowing teachers in a school to decide whether they want to work longer hours - a measure that charter school backers say falls short of what is needed.
David Stone, the lone school board member to vote against the contract ratification, said he was disappointed that the school district did not stand up for the KIPP school more during the negotiations.
"For another year, KIPP is going to be forced to pay rates that even the teachers weren't asking for. If the teachers at a school agree, then it should be their prerogative," Stone said.
Stone suggested that the union contract could allow exceptions if 80 percent or 85 percent of teachers voted to accept a certain amount of pay or work longer hours. He said the exceptions wouldn't necessarily have to apply just to charter schools. All schools in the district, he said, have been given more autonomy and that should be extended to teachers.
KIPP, or the Knowledge is Power Program, was developed by two Teach for America teachers in Houston in 1994 and has spread to 82 schools in 19 states. The schools serve 20,000 students, 80 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced-price meals. KIPP stresses discipline, hard work, a college preparatory curriculum and personal responsibility. Some 80 percent of KIPP alumni go to college. Only five of the schools employ teachers represented by unions and none of them have had to significantly alter the model, according to a KIPP spokesman.
In 2008, 96 percent of the eighth-graders at KIPP passed the Maryland School Assessment in math and 56 percent passed in reading. Overall, the students scored among the top 10 percent of all middle schools in the state.
KIPP will open an elementary school in the Malcolm X Youth Center in the lower Park Heights area this fall, and has plans for another five schools in Baltimore. But that expansion, Botel said, is subject to the schools being able to be faithful to the model of a longer school day.
The school leaders seem puzzled as to why the union challenged the pay issue after seven years. Union president Marietta English declined to comment, but Aldon, the spokeswoman, said the union intervention was the result of complaints from KIPP teachers.