COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Teachers at a northeast Columbus school want to become the 10th unionized charter school in Ohio. Administrators, however, filed a legal challenge against their efforts.

Nearly 80% of eligible educators at KIPP Columbus, a 150-acre campus home to four publicly funded charter schools and about 2,000 students, signed a petition in mid-November requesting the school’s administrators recognize them as a union. 

A day later, the administration filed a legal motion that effectively delayed educators from holding a secret-ballot union election to kick off the official organizing process, according to filings with the National Labor Relations Board.

“Rather than taking the route that makes more sense – there’s 78% of us interested – they’d rather challenge it, waste time and push back our election efforts,” said Jenean Stokes, a social worker at KIPP Columbus’ elementary school.

Stokes, who works with kindergarteners and first graders, loves “the excitement, the colors on the walls, the staff” at KIPP Columbus. The passion for the school and her job, she said, was the impetus behind her desire to unionize.

Concerns about employee retention, paid time off, and maternity and paternity leave have left Stokes and many of her colleagues feeling excluded from decision-making processes. At one point, Stokes said management asked her, “What do social workers even do?”

“I feel like management loses sight of that because they’re not the ones that are there every day, in our day-to-day operations with the children and the families,” Stokes said. “And they can’t really see, as much as we can, the needs.”

Charter schools, also known as “community schools” in Ohio, are treated as public schools under state law and receive funding from the state’s education budget. Though taxpayer-funded, community schools are privately owned and subject to fewer regulations than local school districts.

KIPP Columbus accepted more than $12 million from the Ohio Lottery Commission in fiscal year 2022, more than double the amount awarded to Columbus City Schools, according to an NBC4 review of the commission’s financial reports. 

In its motion before the National Labor Relations Board – a federal agency responsible for enforcing U.S. labor law in the private sector – an attorney representing KIPP Columbus argued the State Employment Relations Board, as opposed to the NLRB, should have jurisdiction over the case.

“KIPP Columbus is a political subdivision excluded from the definition of employer under the NLRA,” the attorney wrote.

That argument, however, has not held up in recent years. The NLRB rejected a similar argument by administrators at the Cleveland-based charter school Menlo Park Academy – whose educators sought to unionize in 2021 – citing the private-employer status of community schools. 

Menlo Park Academy, the NLRB wrote, “was not created directly by the state and is not a department or administrative arm of government,” leaving it within the NLRB’s jurisdiction. Menlo Park teachers eventually joined eight other charter schools to join the Ohio Federation of Teachers through the NLRB process, the OFT said.

In an email, a spokesperson for KIPP Columbus touted the school’s multiple high-achievement awards for student growth, adding the school takes pride in ensuring equal opportunities for all students.

“We respect our colleagues’ rights to join the OFT and equally respect the right to not join – both of these are protected through a fair election, which we support,” the spokesperson said. “Together with our valued teachers and staff our focus remains on our collective work in educating our students.”

Though KIPP Columbus’ legal challenge stalled educators’ ability to hold a union election, Stokes said she is optimistic after seeing the organizing success of fellow educators, including the picket lines formed by Columbus CIty Schools teachers in August.

“I have spoken with other schools who have recently unionized, and they just have so much life in them – that they can be a part of these serious decisions that they once did not have a say in, so I’m excited because of that,” she said.

The NLRB will consider whether to grant KIPP Columbus’ request for purview under the SERB. If granted, educators seeking to unionize will refile a petition with the SERB. If rejected, the NLRB will determine whether to facilitate a secret-ballot union election for KIPP Columbus educators.