Cape Cod's Broken Lighthouse

Something is terribly wrong at the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School in Orleans

Clearly something is broken at Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School. We hope the damage can be reversed before it extinguishes a brilliant light on the challenging coast of Cape Cod education.

Since 1995 Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School (CCLCS) has been a jewel in the crown of Cape Cod public education. The school has a reputation for innovative teaching styles, school-wide projects and individualized instruction. The school turns out successful, enthusiastic learners who bring an impressive skill set and love of learning to whichever high school they attend upon graduation from Grade 8 at CCLCS.

All that came to an end last week when it was announced that the teachers had arranged union representation by the American Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO trade union. Surprise turned to concern and then to outrage as Cape Codders first expressed doubts about the school's ability to maintain its unique culture under the thumb of a labor union and then learned of a possible schism among the faculty over the way AFT was brought into the school.

On Monday, May 16th a letter appeared in the Cape Cod Times signed by Lighthouse Charter School employees Daniella Garran, Judy Stacy and Kim Borowski implied that the union organization process may have been clandestine or perhaps even illegal. The letter previouslyappeared on Facebook and was reported byCape Cod Today onSunday. lists the following steps for a labor union to be organized at a workplace:

  • Authorization Cards - An employee must first sign an authorization card to show his willingness to form a union. To begin the election process requires at least 30% of the employees to sign the cards. Creating a new union requires a majority of the workers to sign the cards. Otherwise, a union cannot be formed.
  • Appropriate Bargaining Unit (ABU) - If there are enough signed authorization cards, they are sent to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for approval of a union election. The NLRB will only grant a union election if the employees are an ABU. This means that the employees have similar demands, hold similar positions, are non-management employees, and work in a close geographical area.
  • Certification - The NLRB will certify and preside over a union election if the above requirements are met.

We don't know how far the union certification process has gone at CCLCS. Some media reports sound as if the school board is preparing to negotiate a contract while the employees' letter indicates the process may not have been completed or might be subject to challenge.

Take away the unique culture of CCLCS and you have "just another middle school" on Old Cape Cod.

This has been a difficult few months for Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School. In February, founding teacher John Stewart died on President's Day. One of the guiding spirits of the school, many felt that Lighthouse Charter lost its soul on the day Mr. Stewart passed.

Last month Executive Director Kathy McNamara announced her resignation and ceased involvement in day-to-day management of the school. She immediately withdrew her children from CCLCS and placed them in the Nauset Regional School District. McNamara was the driving force behind the school's capital project to acquire the Regal Cinema building on Route 137 in Harwich and reconfigure it as a new home to CCLCS. Since the cinema is still open for business it seems that purchase has not yet closed.

Then last week the public learned that the conflict inside the school had escalated to a point where the staff supposedly felt they needed a labor union to protect their job security.

Local spokesmen for the union faction in the school appear to be junior teacher Josh Stewart and information technology director David Agnew. We find it disturbing that neither senior certified staff nor founding teachers have not been heard from on the topic of the AFT organizing process.

Essential to the unique culture of the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School was the cooperative way the teachers, administration and parents worked collaboratively and the unprecedented influence that teachers wielded on matters of curriculum, enrollment and other matters usually in the purview of the administration. Unions invariably turn workplaces into "them and us" environments, a culture which we believe will cause CCLCS to wither and die within a few short years. Will the union demand extra money for the teachers because the collaborative proceedings are "administrative work"? After most schools unionize, teachers demand a raise to pay for their nearly $1,000 annual union dues.

Take away the unique culture of CCLCS and you have "just another middle school" on Old Cape Cod.

Meanwhile, school districts like Dennis-Yarmouth, which next year is projected to lose 59 students to CCLCS, have countered the charter school movement by setting up three of its buildings under the state's new "Innovation Schools" program which brings some characteristics of charter schools to established schools in their district. With three Catholic schools and two Commonwealth charter schools nearby, DY is making a strong effort to retain students they might lose to the "competition".

What is the 'real' story?

What is the real story at the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School? What has caused the teachers to discard a culture that has made CCLCS one of the most successful charter schools in the Commonwealth? Is this move being led or even supported by the surviving founders among the faculty or is it spearheaded by less senior teachers and non-certified staff? Was this brought on by an executive director who tried to lead or was it a chance for junior staff to push back on the power base of the founding teachers?

Amidst the ruins of the battlefield sit the students whose parents sent them to CCLCS for the rich culture, the exemplary education and the unique curriculum.

This week we have heard everything from unconditional praise of the CCLCS faculty to rumors of a Taliban-like cadre of founders that slaughter anyone who disagrees with their views. Some have said that Ms. McNamara inserted a spine into the administration at a time when someone "needs to be the boss" in order to advance the capital project in Harwich - that she tried to lead and was pushed out by the teachers for her efforts. Others described an arbitrary and capricious approach to administration that left teachers worried for their jobs.

Amidst the ruins of the battlefield sit the students whose parents sent them to CCLCS for the rich culture, the exemplary education and the unique curriculum. The board president says the school will "just get better" though we doubt his experience at dealing with a radical, AFL-CIO affiliated labor union. We are concerned about the school's ability to sustain itself financially under the thumb of a labor union contract and under the fiscal burden of a major capital project.

The negative response to date

Meanwhile, the response from the public has been uniformly negative. Parents of enrolled students are gravely concerned, parents of prospective students are questioning whether they still want to send their kids to CCLCS and 64.93% (as of 12:45 p.m. today) of Cape Cod Today's readers are saying the union will destroy the charter school (26.54% support the teachers having a union and 8.53% have no opinion).

Honestly, with all the negative publicity about public employee unions, could the teachers at CCLCS have chosen a worse time to bring in a union? These teachers have already hanged themselves in the court of public opinion and soon they will be drawn and quartered. What's next? Dripping heads spiked on the school's fence along the Old King's Highway in Orleans? The Old King would, no doubt, wax nostalgic.

If the union organization process has not yet been finalized, we urge the staff at Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School to think of the damage this move already has done to the school's exemplary reputation and reconsider their action.

If the union organization process has been completed, we urge the board and administration of CCLCS to articulate how they intend to sustain the school financially under a union contract while at the same time moving forward with their building project in Harwich. More importantly, someone needs to articulate how the collaborative culture of CCLCS can survive under the shadow of a labor union.

Clearly something is broken at Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School. We hope the damage can be reversed before it extinguishes a brilliant light on the challenging coast of Cape Cod education.

Editor's Note: We have invited the school and/or its teachers to write Op Ed responses an d as of 1P.M. on Thursday, 5/1911, have not received a response.

  • The CCLCS Board of Directors for the charter school is here.
  • The CCLCS faculty email directory for the school is here.
  • The CCLCS alumni list is here.
  • The architect's letter about the cinema property to Director McNamara is here.
  • Another article about CCLCS and the union here. welcomes thoughtful comments and the varied opinions of our readers. We are in no way obligated to post or allow comments that our moderators deem inappropriate. We reserve the right to delete comments we perceive as profane, vulgar, threatening, offensive, racially-biased, homophobic, slanderous, hateful or just plain rude. Commenters may not attack or insult other commenters, readers or writers. Commenters who persist in posting inappropriate comments will be banned from commenting on