By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor
When seven teachers asked for union recognition March 22, 2010, Portland French School (PFS) administrator Elimane Mbengue threatened them: Unionizing would cause the school’s closure, he said. The threat was repeated four days later at a mandatory employee meeting: Real estate investor Bob Scanlan, a member of the private school’s board, told employees that unionization would cause closure within a year, because Mbengue and board members would resign, and anti-union parents would remove their children — and annual tuition of $13,000 per student — from the school.
It didn’t happen exactly as Mbengue and Scanlan threatened, but close enough. A union vote will take place May 24. On May 31, PFS will close its doors permanently — squeezed between a severe drop-off in enrollment and a rapid run-up of expenses stemming from the anti-union campaign that school leaders waged.
The closure will mean disruption for pre-kindergarten through middle school students, job loss for nearly 40 employees, termination of a bilingual education program accredited by the French Ministry of Education, and the end of a unique community. Teachers who are in the United States on employment-related visas may have to leave the country. And Portland Public Schools will lose $297,000 a year in revenue if no other tenant steps forward to rent the former Terwilliger Elementary School at 6318 SW Corbett Ave.
It didn’t have to happen this way. The school could have voluntarily recognized the union and begun bargaining a contract with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Teachers had ample reason to unionize: almost no job security protection, no real retirement benefit, and salaries starting in the mid-20s and topping out at around $40,000 — far less than public school teachers.
Instead, Mbengue and several board members fought the union effort in ways that broke federal labor law and polarized the parent community. In individual and group meetings with employees, Mbengue and board members made illegal promises to remedy grievances if employees would withdraw the union petition; enforced a “no-complaining” rule; threatened to institute more severe discipline; and made numerous threats and implied threats of job loss and school closure. Of the seven teachers on the union organizing committee, three had their employment contracts terminated at the end of the school year. [In one of the terminations — third grade teacher Patricia Raclot — the evidence for anti-union motive was strong enough that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) eventually asked for a federal court injunction, and was able to get the school to agree to reinstate her with back pay.]
Meanwhile, board member Scanlan fomented parent intervention in the union question with a March 31, 2010, e-mail to parents announcing his resignation from the board. In the letter, he urged teachers to vote against the union, predicting harm to the school if they unionized. “Parents in this income bracket are more likely to be anti-union than pro-union,” Scanlan wrote. “We may lose students whose parents oppose some of their tuition being forwarded to the union by teachers,” Scanlan continued — an opinion based on his “decades of dealing with high net-worth individuals and in politics.”
Soon after, the school was awash in conflict. Anti-union parents pressed teachers to vote no. Arguments erupted between pro- and anti-union parents, pro- and anti-union teachers, between parents and board members, board members and teachers, between Mbengue and parents and teachers.
The union election went forward April 16, 2010. Support staff voted 7 to 3 to unionize, but teachers split 12 to 12 — a loss for the union. The NLRB eventually ruled that the employer labor law violations tainted the election, and set aside the teacher vote result. AFT was given the right to request a re-run election, but decided to wait until Raclot’s reinstatement.
While it waited, the school imploded. Parents withdrew their children, unhappy with the school’s governance and weary of the conflict. Enrollment for the 2011-12 school year was projected to drop by one-third, from 225 to 150. Meanwhile, according to an April 17, 2011, letter to parents from the school’s board, the school ran up $170,226 in legal bills related to the “labor dispute.” [The Barran Liebman law firm represented the school throughout, with up to three attorneys present at legal proceedings.] On top of that, when the board terminated Mbengue’s own employment contract on Feb. 6 “without cause,” the school became liable for $100,650 in his salary for the remainder of the school year.
Facing a cash crunch, the board announced the school would close at the end of April. Parents rallied over a period of several days and raised $175,000 to fund the school for the month of May. Now the school is set to close May 31, after which it’s expected to declare bankruptcy and liquidate assets.
Notwithstanding the closure, the NLRB scheduled a “re-run” union election for May 24 at the union’s request. They might not be employed a week later, but if teachers unionize, the school might be obliged to bargain terms of dissolution, and they’d have representation in the unlikely event the school reconstitutes itself as a new entity.