Montessori meltdown: Portland preschools close amid union push


Guidepost Montessori closed two Portland-area preschools and furloughed nearly 30 workers on April 8 — less than 24 hours after workers at a second location announced plans to unionize with International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 5. The union has filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) alleging illegal retaliation. It also started a GoFundMe to raise money for the out-of-work teachers.

Guidepost did not return phone calls and emails from the Labor Press. The company runs more than 120 Montessori schools across the nation, including five in Oregon. Montessori schools use an educational model developed by Maria Montessori, an Italian doctor, educator, and philosopher. The model focuses on giving children hands-on, self-directed activities to learn. 

On March 26, workers at Guidepost’s Tigard location asked the NLRB to hold a union election for 17 guides (Montessori teachers), assistant guides, and other non-supervisory employees. Elizabeth Appleton, a guide at the Tigard location and founding member of the organizing committee, said workers want to unionize to improve safety in the school.

Last summer, teachers were evacuated from the school for a suspected gas leak, Appleton said. Teachers and children — some as young as 18 months old — waited for four hours on the playground without access to a bathroom before they were cleared to return to the building. 

“We were having to improvise diaper changes outside on the playground,” said Chloe Del Donno, a lead guide, at the Tigard school. “Families were not called to pick up their children, and we got very little information about what had happened.” 

Represented by a pair of South Carolina employer-side labor attorneys, Guidepost challenged the union at the Tigard location, arguing to the NLRB that lead guides are ineligible for the union because they are supervisors. Guidepost also says the entire effort is illegitimate because those “supervisors” helped form the union. The NLRB held an April 12 hearing on the challenges but had not made a decision when this issue went to press. 

On April 6, two weeks after Tigard announced its union campaign, 11 workers at Guidepost’s Lloyd District location told their managers they planned to join Local 5 too. The next day, Guidepost emailed workers and families at the Lloyd and Tigard schools that effective April 8, their schools were closing for at least three months because the administrators at the schools had resigned suddenly. The email to Tigard families said the administrators had been “under incredible strain” and did not feel like they could continue working at that location, and that they had asked to be moved to another Guidepost campus. Workers at the Lloyd campus received a similar message. The three non-union locations remain open. 

“It just seems suspicious,” said Tigard lead toddler guide Emily McGee-Roan. “There was no indication to us workers, at least, that our head of school and assistant head of school were feeling so uncomfortable they wanted to leave.” 

McGee-Roan says it’s also strange that Guidepost didn’t have anyone to fill in for the administrators. In the past, her Tigard preschool sent administrators to the Lloyd District campus to fill in for missing heads of school. And Higher Ground Education, Guidepost’s parent company, has sometimes sent in regional administrators to help run schools that had vacancies. 

Guidepost changed the passcode on the doors and did not allow workers back inside the building to collect personal items from their classrooms. Appleton says her classroom had a pet caterpillar that was in its cocoon when the school closed. 

“It’s getting very close to its lifespan being over, and I’ve told them many times they cannot just mail it,” she said. “It’s a living creature. We can’t just leave it there.” 

Workers also lost access to their email accounts, cutting off their contact with families that were left scrambling to find last-minute child care. Some families reached out to teachers on social media to coordinate temporary nanny services, which also helps the workers financially. Others enrolled their kids in other child care programs. 

“I think they knowingly dumped an entire family group just so they could get rid of the union,” Appleton said. 

Del Donno says some dislocated workers transferred to other Guidepost schools, but that option wasn’t offered to any guides who openly supported the union. 

Despite the closure, the Lloyd Center workers went ahead and filed a petition for a union election on April 12. 

Before a union election can be scheduled, the NLRB must resolve Guidepost’s challenge to the unit. While they wait for the NLRB’s decision, some union supporters have started applying to other jobs. Appleton, Del Donno, and McGee-Roan say they’d like to see the organizing campaign through. 

“I really believe in the mission of our union, our goals, and the dedication and passion of my co-workers who have also been working on this for months and months,” McGee-Roan said. “I think it’s a worthwhile effort, despite what has happened. It’s not the outcome we wanted, but … it has shined a light on who Guidepost really is.” 


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