In the twelve years since my first child enrolled at Learning Community Charter School (LCCS) in Jersey City, I’ve had a lot of conversations about the word charter. Six years on the LCCS board—including two as its president—and a dozen as an LCCS parent have taught me that for many people, charter is an indelible brand, to be either adored or reviled.

If you were looking at that word for what makes LCCS great, though, you’d be looking at the wrong C.

The real salient feature at LCCS is found in a different part of the school’s name—community. At LCCS, all members of the school community—including teachers—are welcomed and included in decision-making.

Creating a Community of Inclusion

From the start, the founders of LCCS envisioned a school in which all involved—teachers, students, parents, administration, and even neighbors and local businesses—were part of a single community.

That sense of community didn’t just happen—it was intentional from the start. It is not only incorporated in the school’s name, but also in its charter, vision statement, and perhaps most importantly, in its governing bylaws.

While New Jersey state law makes no specific requirements or recommendations regarding membership on a charter school’s board of trustees, LCCS bylaws require that its board membership include the principal, at least four parent members elected by students’ families, at least two community members appointed by the board, and two teacher representatives elected by their fellow teachers.

There is a unique value in having a board membership comprised of people from all stakeholder perspectives. A governing body having representation from all parts of the community is more likely to make sensible, equitable decisions. Each board member serves not only as a voice to specific concerns, but also as eyes and ears for the community, experiencing firsthand the issues that the full board must deal with in running the school.

A Union as a Voice for Teachers

Teachers’ voice in the LCCS community is not limited to board membership.

LCCS is a unionized charter school. Its teachers have a strong voice when it comes to setting workplace conditions and compensation. They have stability, a transparent salary schedule, workplace protections, and an established grievance process. For them, a new principal or a shift in board membership does not mean they need to walk around on eggshells.

This is not to suggest that it’s all smooth sailing. Contract negotiations, which typically last about six months, can be tense, but at their best they are part of a process of communication that helps both the school and the teachers set their financial agendas for the coming years. And while neither the teachers nor the board has ever walked away from the table having gotten everything they wanted,  everyone has always left happy enough to continue.

As a board member, and particularly as president of the board, I was fully supportive of the teachers’ union membership. One proof of its success is that teacher turnover at LCCS is relatively light—particularly for a charter school.

But it is my experience that teacher voice through unionization is only part of the reason LCCS continues to thrive.

Surviving the Crunch

The annual budgeting process is arguably the most contentious time of the year for charter schools in New Jersey. Because the state provides no funding for facilities, New Jersey charter schools must pay rent and maintenance out of their education budget.

Furthermore, the intricacies the state’s school funding formula mean that charter schools in urban areas typically receive just over half of what surrounding public schools receive, per pupil.

Add in cuts to state per-pupil funding, and the situation can get pretty bleak.

Arts programs get cut to pay for rent. Field trips disappear to pay for supplies. Visions of new technology are dashed. Hiring of new teachers or staff is put on hold. Morale plummets.

When resources are scarce, contract negotiations can often become adversarial.

And it is precisely at this moment that LCCS teachers’ involvement in the school beyond the classroom and their contract kicks in.

At LCCS, when the financial solvency of the school was threatened by state funding cuts, the teachers were motivated to make mid-contract concessions as part of the school’s response. And when the next contract negotiation arrived—in the face of continued flat funding—the teachers accepted perhaps less than they deserved, because they already knew the school’s financial situation.

Why Teacher Voice Matters

It comes down to this: How can a community govern fairly if it doesn’t have representative governance?

Teachers that have not only a union contract but also a voice on the board have more skin in the game.

They have more information—and also more trust.

They have significant input on the running of the school throughout the year—and significant responsibility.

They have a voice—and a window into the process of governance.

Teacher participation builds lines of communication between teachers, the board, and the administration. Teachers who are present at the table do not end up being surprised when it comes to the school’s priorities, and the school’s finances.

From my perspective as a board president—and as a parent—trying to run a school without significant input from its teachers would be ignoring one of the greatest resources a school has.

About the Smarter Charter Series

This series highlights ideas for promoting effective charter schools that empower teachers, integrate students, and share lessons with other schools. For more on these ideas, check out A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education, by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter.