If you read the News Journal article on the Charter School of Wilmington teachers voting to unionize, it was filled with reasons why President Sam Paoli did not want the teachers to unionize. The article failed to capitalize on why the vote happened in the first place- CSW President Sam Paoli.
At this point it is unclear why the educators wanted to unionize or by how large a margin the vote was successful.
I have those answers.
Nothing happens overnight and for the teachers and staff at CSW, this has been building for years according to multiple sources who do not wish to be named for fear of reprisal. The words these sources used to describe Paoli were consistent- “angry”, “intimidating” and “arrogant”. Charter School of Wilmington is the only charter school in the state that refers to their Head of School or Principal as a “President”. Many feel it is time for President Paoli to go.
Jessica Bies, the reporter on the News Journal article, only took one stance regarding charter school teacher dismissals:
For instance, charter schools that don’t have collective bargaining agreements can more easily replace staff that isn’t performing well.
Those same collective bargaining agreements can also prevent a school leader from dismissing excellent teachers over a minor disagreement or because they question things. But it goes beyond teacher dismissals. It is a matter of having the ability to air grievances without fear of retaliation. Paoli’s attempt to placate this issue in his email to CSW teachers and staff was a slap in the face:
As you know, CSW has long had an open-door policy to allow staff and faculty to bring concerns to the administration, as well as a long-standing teacher representative on the board whose role and obligation is to communicate the concerns of the staff and faculty to the full board.
But is it an open-door policy?
Paoli became the President of CSW in the 2012-2013 school year. He came to CSW from Delaware Military Academy where he served as a Guidance Counselor. When Chuck Baldwin became the CSW President in the 2011-2012 school year, he brought Paoli over to serve as a Vice President. At the end of Baldwin’s year, he resigned and Paoli became the Acting President. The CSW Board of Directors voted Paoli in as the President where he has been ever since.
When Paoli was Vice President, many sources claim he was not an easy person to get along with. These sources felt he could have changed when he became President but that did not happen. Over the years, teachers and staff felt their concerns were ignored by the board. They would file grievances against Paoli that went nowhere. Many feel Paoli has a Napoleon-like sense of “entitlement” that the CSW board allows. This is not the first time I’ve written about Paoli’s nefarious reputation at the school. That was three years ago. I wrote then:
Most said he is not a fit leader and bullying and intimidation is common practice with him. All eyes are on the board at CSW to see what happens next.
For the educators at CSW, it was time for a change. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the termination of a long-time teacher over the Winter. Many wrote letters of support for the rehiring of the beloved teacher but the board wouldn’t budge. Paoli himself was furious over the letters according to sources. Some reports from sources stated Paoli threw teachers out of his office when they voiced concerns over the termination. He has been heard many times saying the teachers are “whining”. Teachers were terrified of being fired and felt they had no voice. In Delaware, which is an “at-will” state in terms of employment, charter school teachers can be fired for no reason whatsoever. Many felt the beloved teacher’s firing was not only ridiculous but frivolous.
It wasn’t just the staff at CSW that had issues with Paoli. Parents did as well. According to sources, parents have witnessed tantrums from Paoli. This includes yelling at staff.
A big reason why the unionization vote happened when it did had to do with events at another Delaware charter school. When the Delaware Academy of Public Safety & Security did not renew several teachers’ contracts, following their formal review and probation, it was a serious wake-up call. The vote had to happen, and soon.
Sources indicate the vote was 60% in favor of unionization. Sam Paoli told the teachers if they unionized they could face additional duties. This frightened the paraprofessionals at the school who performed many of those duties, including lunch duty, monitoring, and extra help for students. Many of those paraprofessionals voted no because of a very real fear their jobs could be eliminated. In attendance at the vote were three board members and John Taylor, the school’s attorney from Saul Ewing.
So why hasn’t the CSW board taken action on Paoli? Sources say Paoli has one year left on his contract. If the board ended that contract they would have to pay Paoli his salary for next year. One source even suggested CSW board President Wayne Barndt told the board teachers don’t want to do their jobs. When news of this broke out among staff, it was another defining moment of the board not listening to their concerns and giving Paoli more power. Many felt Paoli should be on a performance management plan. Others felt he should attend anger management classes. Sources say Barndt ignored the teachers and parent reps on the board to the point of neglect. The red flags on Paoli have been waving for years but the board does nothing. The CSW board was asleep at the wheel and some have suggested they were in denial over the impending union vote. They knew it would happen but didn’t think it would pass.
This was not the first time the CSW teachers and staff attempted to unionize. An attempt was made when Walt Werner became the CSW President following President Ron Russo’s termination.
The upper echelon of administrators at CSW will change in the near future. CSW Vice President Eric Anderson will take over as Head of School for Sussex Academy on July 1st. CSW Citizens Budget Oversight Committee minutes from February talk about a “succession plan for the future retirement of the CFO”. Jed Desmond is the long-term Chief Financial Officer at CSW. Together with Paoli, these are the three highest paid salaries at Charter School of Wilmington. This is a school that is projected to be under budget by $130,000 for FY2018 according to their April 2018 monthly financial statement. Why not, instead of carrying that budget over, pay Paoli out on the rest of his contract and just get a new school leader? Paoli’s salary is $137,500. This could be a defining moment for the board to make necessary changes before Paoli inflicts more damage to the school, the teachers, the staff, the students, parents, and the very reputation of the top-rated charter school.
Red Clay Consolidated School District, the charter school authorizer for CSW, has limited powers with how they oversee the school. They cannot force board changes or the hiring of the school leader. They do not have any of their board members on the board at CSW. If the school were placed on formal review, conditions could be imposed on CSW but the apparatus for formal review would not allow this situation to put the school under that review process.
Over the weekend, Matthew Albright with the News Journal wrote an editorial about how this situation is a type of “détente” for traditional school districts and charter schools in Delaware. He wrote:
Here’s my reaction to the union vote: What if this isn’t a win or a loss for anybody, but an opportunity to make the issue of charter schools a little less divisive?
What Albright did not mention at all in his editorial, as well as reporter Jessica Bies in the above-mentioned article, is this would have never happened were it not for a dysfunctional leader who rules a school with an iron fist. This situation was a tremendous loss for the teacher who lost their job and the students who lost that teacher. There is no doubt CSW is the academic kingpin in Delaware. No one disputes that. And we can argue all day about their demographics, but it is what it is. But the CSW teachers and staff joining DSEA is not a matter of charters vs. districts at all. It is about educators standing up for themselves and saying NO MORE to what they view as a toxic work environment. When the governing body of CSW completely ignored them time after time, they had little choice. The same story could be said at other charter schools. This is not indicative of a resentment against charter schools but rather a need for structural change at Delaware charter schools and how they are governed.
Delaware charter schools, under Title 14 of the Delaware State Code, give their boards the authorization to pick their own board members. They are not elected except by their own board. It is very easy to stack the deck to get charter school board members to vote in unison when it comes to action items. It is very rare that I see dissension among charter school board votes. When those self-made boards pick a school leader, it becomes their baby so to speak. One former charter school board member from another Delaware charter school, who requested anonymity, told me:
If a Head of School gets canned by a charter board it reflects poorly on the board because they hired the person. Too many charters run on ego and it is not in the best interest of students.
So what is the solution? It would be extremely difficult to have charter school board members elected the same way as school district board members. Many charter schools have students from different districts. One potential answer could be with the election process itself: have the parents of current students and the staff vote on the board membership. While this obviously could not happen with a charter school applicant, the law could be changed to allow for gradual elections the longer the school is open. But this would require major changes to the charter school law in Delaware and the opposition to this would be fierce from all corners of the status quo. The Delaware Charter Schools Network is a huge lobbyist at Legislative Hall in Dover and I would be very curious how they would stand on this issue. At the heart of the charter school movement are parents who exercised a choice for their children. Those same parents should have more of a vote on how those schools are run. As well, the teachers and staff who know those students the best should also have a huge say. While this goes against every conventional norm for how charter schools are allowed to operate, it is a conversation worth having. Perhaps Delaware can be a change agent for charter schools.
For charter schools, I hope this is a lesson for all of them. Schools are meant to educate children. There should be no ego involved. They should not be an environment of fear for those who are tasked to help children.
Editor’s note: This post is filled with unnamed sources. There are several reasons for that. The biggest of which is the heart of the article: a school leader who uses bullying, fear, and intimidation to hold on to his power. There is a very real fear of this man with those who work in the school. While I have no doubt there will be those who post comments defending the school, this article is not about bashing CSW. It is about the leadership and governing structure of the school. In my opinion, they are not the school. It is the students and educators. Where there is smoke, there is fire. There is a lot of smoke coming out of CSW these days. Major media has run stories with less source information than this article. An earlier version of this article said there were three attempts to unionize. That has been corrected to two attempts with the last being the recent vote in favor.