Chicago charter strike ends with a tentative agreement and unanswered questions

A group of high school students stand at left. Adults are seated nearby in an auditorium.
Urban Prep West students and supporters testify in front of the Illinois State Charter Commission in March 2019. (Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat)

A teachers’ strike during final exam week at an all-male, predominantly Black charter network in Chicago ended early Wednesday.

Teachers at three campuses of Urban Prep Academies agreed to a tentative contract with the charter division of the Chicago Teachers Union that would extend through June 2022. The agreement includes retroactive raises for the past three years that would put educators closer to a district-run salary schedule. During walkouts, union officials described an $11,000 pay gap between starting salaries at the Chicago charter and district-run schools.

An official from the charter network, believed to be the nation’s first all-male charter when it was founded in 2005, said the strike capped a year of “tremendous challenges” due to the COVID-19 Pandemic and the fatal shooting of an Urban Prep student.

“We have been especially appreciative of our teachers during this past year,” said Troy Boyd, the chief operating officer in a statement. Despite the challenges, 100% of seniors were accepted into colleges for the 12th straight year and one of the campuses — Urban Prep Bronzeville — maintained the district’s second highest school rating of a “1,” he said.

Boyd said that campuses continued to operate during the strike under the watch of administrators and non-unionized staff. Students will be able to finish the school year on time, he added. 

Urban Prep was founded with the goal of sending all of its students to college. State data from the 2018-2019 school year shows that 69% of students enrolled in college, slightly higher than the district average. 

The strike — a rare event at the end of the school year — made public some grievances about the charter’s financial management and whether the network allocates sufficient money and services to students with disabilities, who make up about a quarter of enrollment. It’s not yet clear how those complaints could factor into Chicago Public Schools’ decision to renew the charter for one of the campuses, in Englewood, next year or whether the strike prompted additional scrutiny by the city or state. 

Earlier this year, Urban Prep Englewood was flagged by district officials for not meeting certain financial and academic standards set by Chicago Public Schools.

After the Englewood campus had been on an academic warning list for two years and could have been eligible for revocation, the school district in January recommended a one-year contract extension — but that recommendation came with a sharp rebuke from the district’s chief portfolio officer, Bing Howell. Howell said the school demonstrated “consistently troubling performance” in three categories — academic, financial, and in operations — and that the district would terminate the Englewood campus charter in 2022 if it didn’t “cure its unacceptable performance.”

Chicago already moved to revoke the charter for the third campus, Urban Prep West, but the charter network appealed to the state through a now-defunct charter commission. That campus is now under state purview.

In a Tuesday letter to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and school district CEO Janice Jackson, the union alleged that the charter network took out a series of short-term, high-interest loans that siphoned dollars meant for students away from schools. 

“Every dollar of that loss means less funding for Urban Prep’s classrooms and student needs,” reads the letter, signed by Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey. “Our teachers at Urban Prep’s three campuses remain deeply committed to our schools’ mission to nurture and support our Black male high school students ... Management’s financial practices are a direct threat to this mission, particularly in terms of these practices’ undermining of funding for special needs.”

A spokesman for Chicago Public Schools said the district was previously made aware of the allegations in the letter; an investigation by the Office of the Inspector General is ongoing.

Asked about the letter, Boyd, of Urban Prep, said Wednesday in an e-mail that charter schools face financial obligations that traditional public schools don’t — such as paying for buildings, technology, and security. “On occasion this requires us to utilize all funding options available to us. Which is why Urban Prep has previously entered into agreements with various loan companies,” he wrote, adding that the network had been open with the school district and the union about its finances.

“(We) are currently working with CPS to ensure Urban Prep is on the most solid financial footing possible,” he wrote.

The union said Wednesday that the agreement included changes to the teacher evaluation system, additional paid leave for teachers, and smaller class size provisions. According to the union, the agreement also includes a “commitment” from management to follow special education law.

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