Leaders of the state’s first online charter school are pushing back on an effort by teachers and staff to form a union, a few months after some teachers expressed concern about a lack of input they had in the hiring of a principal who resigned from a previous post amid harassment allegations.

The National Labor Relations Board is reviewing objections filed by Maine Connections Academy to a November election in which the school’s employees voted to unionize.

Details of the school’s filing were not immediately available from the labor board Friday, but two teachers at the school and the chair of its governing board said the dispute centers around the eligibility of some staff members to vote.

“The election held was fair and valid,” Grace Leavitt, president of the Maine Education Association, said in a news release Friday. “To have to bring this issue to court is proof of why these educators need to have a union. The Maine Education Association is always working to ensure educator voices are heard, no matter where they work.

“These teachers deserve to have their voices heard, and MEA is working to make sure that happens. The teachers at Connections Academy deserve a seat at the table – the tactics being used to fight against them are not only costly to the taxpayer but are simply wrong.”

Maine Connections Academy, a virtual school for students in grades 7-12, opened in the 2014-2015 school year and is one of the state’s two virtual charter schools.

The school has 22 employees, according to the association, and the November election resulted in a 9-7 vote in favor of forming a union.

“The results of the election will not be final until the current legal proceedings involving the eligibility of certain individuals to vote in the election have concluded,” Amy Linscott, chair of the school’s governing board, said in a statement. “We do not know when that will happen, and anticipate that it could take several weeks.”

“Regardless of the final outcome, our school community will continue to offer all of the services and resources needed to create a well-rounded student experience.”

According to the association, four ballots are being contested: two by Connections Academy, one by the labor board and one by the association.

“They’re grasping at straws,” said Pam Bessey, a science teacher at Maine Connections Academy. “Really, it comes down to the fact they don’t want our voices heard and are trying to figure out how they can spend a lot of money to negate the election. The election was fair and valid. It’s really disappointing the school doesn’t want to acknowledge our votes.”

The Nov. 13 vote came less than two months after some teachers expressed concern about the school’s hiring of Principal Walter Wallace, who resigned from his job as principal at Brunswick Junior High in March amid allegations he harassed and bullied female staff.

The results of an investigation a law firm made into his conduct were not made public, but Brunswick Superintendent Paul Perzanoski said in a letter to teachers that Wallace’s conduct did not meet the school board’s definition of harassment.

Anna-Stina Wardlaw, a school counselor at Maine Connections Academy, said some teachers and staff have been frustrated by a lack of voice and input in decision making, including Wallace’s hiring.

“I don’t think the administration is doing much to help,” Wardlaw said. “They could have embraced it and said, ‘We hear you.’ After a 9-7 vote a clear majority of teachers wanted to be unionized and they could have said, ‘Let’s just move forward.’ That hasn’t happened. They’re fighting it and creating this additional angst that doesn’t have to be there.”

Like all charter schools, Maine Connections Academy is a public school that operates outside the purview of any school district and is open to students from around the state who want to attend. The tuition is paid by the state.

The school contracts with Pearson Online & Blended Learning K-12 USA for its online curriculum. The for-profit company provides similar services for online public schools in 28 states, including two schools with teachers unions, said Allison Bazin, director of public relations for Pearson.

“Pearson respects and supports both the rights of employers and those of employees who choose to unionize and the process through which unions are formed,” she said. “All labor related decisions are made by the school’s independent board.

“Our work for the school is unchanged – Pearson remains focused on helping the school deliver the best online school experience for Maine students, families, and teachers.”

The MEA represents almost 24,000 educators in 242 chapters statewide that comprise teachers, support staff, pre-service teachers and retired educators.

Of Maine’s 10 charter schools, only Baxter Academy is unionized, according to the association, having won the right to do so May 14.

Correction: This story was updated at 2:40 p.m. Monday, Jan. 6, 2020, to correct the entity that pays tuition for students at charter schools.

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