Last spring, Dan Magaziner’s 8-year-old son learned about “changemakers” in his social-studies class at Brooklyn Friends, a private Quaker school in Brooklyn known for its progressive teachings and emphasis on social justice.
The second-grader studied civil rights activists like Bayard Rustin, and, for his final project, he wrote about Cesar Chavez and the organizing of farm workers in California.
So Mr. Magaziner was shocked when, months later, he and the other parents at Brooklyn Friends received a Friday night email that said the school was seeking to dissolve the faculty and staff members’ union in order to “fully practice our Quaker values of respecting others and celebrating every individual’s inner light.”
The Aug. 14 email drew a swift backlash from many parents of children at the school over what they said was hypocritical union-busting by a liberal institution.
“My son learned that organizing was a laudable thing to do,” Mr. Magaziner said. “Now I have to tell him that the school apparently didn’t mean it, and that its ideas about changemakers apparently stop at the schoolhouse door.”
The administration has defended its decision as an effort to “amplify” voices, not “quiet” them. But the conflict at the school, where tuition starts at $46,400 and many students come from wealthy families, shows how progressive institutions like Brooklyn Friends can get caught up in fierce debates over whether they are upholding their core beliefs.
Brooklyn Friends, located in Downtown Brooklyn, has about 900 students, and it was difficult to identify parents who would publicly support the administration’s decision.
More than 1,000 parents and alumni have signed a petition urging the school to stop its efforts to decertify the union, and some 130 teachers and staff members have signed a petition of their own.
“People keep saying, ‘This isn’t the school I thought I was sending my children to,’” said Sabrina Rodriguez, a Brooklyn Friends parent.
In the spring of last year, over 80 percent of faculty and staff members voted to unionize, with no objection from the school. Union representatives were at the table as contract talks began at the end of 2019 and in July of this year to negotiate the layoffs of approximately 30 teachers because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Two weeks after those negotiations ended, teachers and staff members received notice on Aug. 14 that the school was moving to dismantle the union. The administration said a union went against Quaker values, which emphasize direct communication and consensus.
Crissy Cáceres, the head of school, wrote in an email to the faculty and staff: “Working through a third party to communicate with all of you hinders us in hearing from you, in your words, about issues you may want to raise directly with the school concerning your working conditions and professional experiences.”
Her motion with the school’s board of trustees to disband the union cited a June decision by the National Labor Relations Board to reverse an Obama-era ruling that gave religiously affiliated institutions the right to organize.
Brooklyn Friends was founded by the Religious Society of Friends in 1867. It cut ties with the New York Quarterly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, the city’s chief Quaker body, in 2010.
While few students are Quakers, the religion’s history is a key part of the curriculum. According to its website, the school follows a set of Quaker testimonies, a body of beliefs shared by the religion’s followers, which supports their aim to provide “moral development” in addition to academic progress.
Under the school’s charter, half of the board of trustees must be Quaker and one of the two board chairs must be Quaker-appointed. (Ms. Cáceres is not a Quaker.)
On Aug. 21, the day after the parents’ petition was sent to the school, Ms. Cáceres and the board of trustees sent another letter stating that the school was sticking to its decision.
“We also recognize the feelings of many of you,” the letter read, “that this N.L.R.B. action may seem to contradict the history and culture of integrity and activism that lies at the foundation of our Quaker community.”
But, it added, “Quaker values commit us to integrity, reflection, equality, peace, simplicity, community, and the profound process of Quaker decision making, which occurs through respectfully hearing each other’s voices while remaining in a space of openness.”
Similar conflicts have arisen at other private schools when progressive curriculums have not been able to prevent controversy.
In 2018, a math teacher at Friends Seminary, a private Quaker school in downtown Manhattan, was fired after he demonstrated an obtuse angle by pointing his arm forward and saying, “Heil Hitler.” Some students staged a walk out in protest of his firing, while others called for his dismissal.
Last year, students at Saint Ann’s School, an independent school in Brooklyn, met with administrators over what they called a longstanding problem of bigotry at the school, prompted by a racist and anti-Semitic Instagram account run by students.
And the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, an independent school with campuses in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx, faced a backlash this past winter from parents who criticized the school for not adequately addressing anti-Semitic comments made by a guest speaker and a teacher.
According to Ms. Cáceres, who started as head of school in 2019, neither voting nor third-party representation is in line with the Quaker way.
“Quaker decision-making isn’t by majority rule,” she said in an interview last week. “It’s an earnest process of human relational engagement that’s focused on not just what is my need, but what is our experience?”
Ms. Cáceres said she believed the administration and the employees could negotiate work conditions without the union, the United Auto Workers, Local 2110.
“I chose to come into a Quaker school,” she said, “because it has all of the ingredients necessary to be able to navigate that challenge without having an adversarial relationship, without having an ‘other’ to be able to engage in those conversations.”
Eliza van Rootselaar, a second-grade teacher, disagreed with the idea that the union hindered the administration from hearing from its employees.
“The school claims that the union prevents us from speaking,” she said. “But we spoke: We unionized.”
Mr. Magaziner, whose daughter also attends the school, said he was angry that his more than $100,000 tuition payment for his two children was “going to crush the teacher’s union.”
“To shroud it in Quakerism,” he said, was “opportunistic and cynical.”
Drew Smith, the executive director of the Friends Council on Education, a national association of Quaker schools of which Brooklyn Friends is a member, said the council had no stance on the role of unions in Quaker schools, though few schools affiliated with the organization had them.
He added that Quaker practices and beliefs tend to result in followers who are more socially liberal and “this effort at this school does seem to be out of character.”
Stephen Angell, a professor of Quaker studies at Earlham College, agreed that there were no strict guidelines on Quakers and unions.
But, he said, “I think that the Brooklyn Friends management is being a bit self-serving and presumptuous about the remarks they are making because, quite frankly, Quakers don’t have that level of clarity on the unionizing process.”