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Charter school denies threatening teachers
By Jameel Naqvi | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 2/29/2008 12:06 AM

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In possible violation of federal law, Cambridge Lakes Charter School officials asked teachers this week to denounce recent efforts to unionize, a union official said.

A federal labor official confirmed that if true, the school would have broken federal labor laws.

Some of the school's roughly 50 employees have been in discussions with UniServ, the union that represents Community Unit District 300 employees, for the past six to eight weeks.

Officials at the school, which opened in September, asked employees about their union activities during a meeting of all school employees Monday morning, UniServ Region 25 Director Diane Petersen said.

"They're asking employees to say, 'Were you involved in the union effort?' which is illegal," Petersen said.

A document that Petersen said was handed out at the meeting, and that the Daily Herald has obtained, asks employees if they engaged in "the recently publicized acts against the interests of Northern Kane Educational Corp.," the nonprofit organization that runs the Pingree Grove charter school.

On Sunday, the Daily Herald reported that teachers at the charter school were trying to unionize.

Northern Kane Executive Director Larry Fuhrer on Monday would not confirm whether the document was distributed to employees at the meeting.

"It was a housekeeping meeting. It's not a public matter," Fuhrer said.

State and federal labor officials said that while the question does not explicitly ask about unionization efforts, charter school officials are on shaky legal ground.

"They're trying to tiptoe, but certainly if there is union-organizing activities going on at the same time, I think I'd be pretty comfortable saying that's unlawful," said Joe Barker, director of Region 13 for the National Labor Relations Board.

A notice on District 300's Web site last week said classes at the charter school started more than two hours later on Monday because of an issue with facilities.

Fuhrer, however, said Thursday classes started late because of the staff meeting.

"There weren't enough people to cover the classrooms," Fuhrer said. "We didn't have sufficient people until 10:30," when classes started.

At the meeting, according to Peterson, employees were each given a form they were expected to fill out and sign. The form gives employees three options:

• Assert that they did not act "against the interests of Northern Kane Educational Corp." and in the wake of the Daily Herald published report they "demand a public apology from those who sullied my reputation."

• Admit they did act against the interests of their employer "without regret or remorse" and "intend to assert my personal interest" above those of their employer.

• Admit they did act against the interests of their employer, but "regret and repudiate" their actions and will publicly apologize. They also will "withdraw any expression of interest given to a UniServ representative."

"That would be unlawful," Barker said. "That would be interference with organizing and union activities."

The document suggests Northern Kane may take action against employees who feel no remorse.

"Kane Educational Corp. may seek redress for my actions in any manner provided by law," the document states.

"That sounds like a threat," Barker said. "I would consider that illegal."

Fuhrer said the meeting had "absolutely nothing" to do with unionizing and said charter school officials "made no threats of any kind either overt or veiled."

Teachers contacted by the Daily Herald refused to talk on the record because, they said, they feared of losing their jobs.

Petersen said she has already asked UniServ's legal counsel to explore the charter school employees' options.

UniServ is part of the Illinois Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

Among the possible options, Petersen said, was filing an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

"We are looking into this matter," Petersen said. "We will figure out a way for employees to get their due process."