Walkout: Day 4

Why Chicago’s second charter strike is one to watch

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Striking Chicago International Charter School teachers and supporters march in front of CICS's Chicago corporate offices Monday, Feb. 11, 2019.

As Denver teachers went out on strike Monday in a pay dispute with their district, charter teachers in Chicago at four schools operated by Civitas Education Partners entered the second week of a strike over wages and support services for students.

With negotiations failing again on Sunday night, teachers braved freezing temperatures to walk picket lines at the crack of dawn outside the downtown headquarters of Chicago International Charter Schools, Civitas’ parent company. They also staged an afternoon rally, focusing on the charter’s unusual management structure, and called for the network’s CEO to join them at the bargaining table.

The strike affects 180 teachers and paraprofessionals and about 2,200 students. Schools are open and staffed by non-union staff — 165 students attended class at CICS Wrightwood elementary on Monday, while no students came to CICS Northtown, according to Chicago International’s figures.

Here’s what you need to know as the strike heads into its second week:

What is the main sticking point in negotiations?

Pay remains a sticking point between the teachers’ union and Civitas Education Partners.

Teachers and support staff are demanding increased pay that rewards their education levels and experience, more counselors and social workers and smaller class sizes. They are also angry at recent changes in benefit structures, including no longer offering paid parental leave for staff.

Union officials said the network has offered teachers an 8 percent raise in the first year of the contract, but only if they agree to staffing cuts in some areas like counseling and social workers.

Management has said that the union has agreed to several points, including counselor ratios and class size. In response, Jen Conant, a CICS Northtown teacher and member of the bargaining team, accused the network of lying.

“CICS continues to demand that our educators trade small raises on already terrible wages for cuts to our students’ education needs,” Conant said. “We have no agreement on class sizes, which CICS wants to increase. We have no agreement on counselor ratios, which CICS also wants to increase.”

Who’s at the table?

At the negotiating table, 14 people represents the union, including teachers, paraprofessionals, the union’s general counsel, and field representatives from the striking schools.

On management’s side, Civitas officials negotiate, led by LeeAndra Khan, the company’s CEO.

But in recent days, the union has called for Civitas’ parent company, Chicago International Charter Schools, to join the talks.

“We want CICS to come to the table and negotiate with teachers,” said Stacey Davis Gates, political director of the Chicago Teachers Union.

Unlike charter networks that run schools directly, Chicago International operates more like a contractor: It hires other organizations to run schools. The network oversees 14 schools run by five charter management organizations, some of which subcontract management to a third operator.

Khan, of Civitas, has insisted that her company makes financial decisions and that Chicago International has no personnel function at striking schools. “CICS is not at the table because CICS is not the employer,” she said.

Why is this strike significant?

This is the third charter teachers strike in the country — the first took place when Acero teachers walked off the job in Chicago in December, and the second when educators in Los Angeles, including from three charter schools, walked off the job for eight days last month.

Bob Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said by winning some demands, CICS teachers could demonstrate that charter employees can stage — and win —  strikes. Teachers in both Chicago’s Acero strike, and in Los Angeles, were able to get many of their demands.

“Maybe the first strike is unique,” said Bruno. But “if CTU [Chicago Teachers Union] is successful with the second one, then it affirms that this is a path that can be productive for teachers.”

Negotiations resumed at 5 p.m. Monday.

governance

Aurora school board considers whether to close or renew large charter school

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
File photo of book bins in a charter school classroom.

The Aurora school board is considering whether to renew a charter school — if it meets a long list of conditions — even though it has ignored district concerns about its finances and governing board.

The board last renewed Vanguard Classical School’s charter for just one year, because of concerns over conflicts of interest. Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said he struggled with the renewal recommendation, due in December, because he first planned to recommend closure, but then decided to give Vanguard more time to provide information.

“The ultimate thing that I keep very heavily in mind around this kind of question is whether or not student needs are being met,” Munn said. “In this circumstance, we have not had any question about their student needs being met. In that context I felt very reluctant to recommend revocation.”

The Aurora school board will make its decision March 5.

Among conditions for Vanguard, the district suggests the school replace its board to include two parents and exclude employees of Ability Connection Colorado, a non-profit that founded the school and is now contracted to manage some services for Vanguard.

School leaders told the Aurora school board on Tuesday that they’re willing to comply with the conditions, and said they are making changes already. Previously, school leaders denied problems with governance, blaming some district concerns on misunderstandings.

Vanguard’s two campuses serve more than 1,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. About 9 percent of its students qualify for special education.

The nonprofit Ability Connection Colorado opened the school in 2007. The organization, which provides education and programs for people with special needs, is led by CEO Judy Ham, who also serves as the board president of the school.

Since it opened, the school has paid the nonprofit for administrative work in human resources, risk management and nutrition and financial services.

District officials have repeatedly said that it is a conflict of interest for Ham to vote on or sign contracts between the nonprofit and the school. The district was also concerned that the contract with Ability Connection Colorado didn’t clearly list the services it was to provide to the school and wasn’t awarded through a competitive process.

One former Vanguard teacher, Audrey Monaco, whose position was cut in December, explained that staff have repeatedly complained to their school board about Ability Connection’s services.

“Every person has a story about human resources,” Monaco said.

She and other employees have complained about unpaid benefits, dropped insurance, and missing documents. Monaco said that in the four years she worked at Vanguard, she had to provide her teaching license to the same Human Resource employee three times.

“I was like, where are you losing my confidential information?” Monaco said. “This was pretty upsetting to me.”

Monaco said she didn’t understand why the non-profit kept getting the contract when services didn’t measure up. However, one of the employees of Abilities Connection was Ham’s daughter, she said. District documents also reference concerns with Ham’s daughter, an employee of Ability Connection.

The Aurora district’s proposed conditions would require Vanguard to evaluate its service provider and to include a review of fair market values and survey responses from the Vanguard staff and families.

Another concern the district lists in its recommendation is about gaps in how the school tracks its finances. An audit, for example, showed money transfers to Ability Connection for about $465,000 that were not approved by the board and did not include itemized receipts. School officials later told the district the money was used for things like furniture, kitchen equipment and background checks, but did not provide documentation.

Munn noted that these issues could eventually affect how students are educated, though he doesn’t think they have yet.

“We think there are some organizational things around, just to be blunt, some adult issues that need to be fixed so that student needs can continue to be met,” Munn said.

Monaco believes the district’s conditions are fair and necessary so that the school can continue to operate.

But others, like Chad Smith, a parent of a 9-year-old student at the school, fear the district is using an “iron fist” to change the school.

“I believe Vanguard East and West was born from ACCO [Ability Connection] and I’m disappointed that you are demanding them to no longer have any influence or some kind of access to what their creation becomes,” Smith said. “I fear a new board will not be Vanguard Classical East or West, it will be whatever this new board chooses it to be. I hope it is still a school that I will want my daughter in.”

District board members seemed skeptical about renewing Vanguard’s charter after having had this same conversation about a year ago. Munn and Brandon Eyre, the district’s attorney who helps write charter contracts, said that because the district had less information a year ago about the problems at Vanguard, the conditions imposed last year weren’t enough to really address the problems, even if the school had complied.

As an example, district officials had asked the school to hire a new executive director. But district staff say they found that the current executive director “was hand-chosen by Judy Ham and presented to the Vanguard Board as the sole option for approval” — evidence that conditions meant to empower the board “failed.”

Aurora board member Dan Jorgensen noted that he has heard only good things about the school’s education and programs.

Board members asked if the district felt confident Vanguard would meet the conditions this time around. District staff explained that if the school doesn’t comply with the conditions by the deadlines set in the contract, the board could close the school at that time, without waiting until the end of the proposed two-year contract.

negotiations

Aurora school board reverses course, accepts finding that district should have negotiated bonuses with union

Students in a math class at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Following weeks of criticism, the Aurora school board on Tuesday reversed course and accepted an arbitrator’s finding that a pilot bonus system violated the district’s agreement with the teachers union.

The Aurora school district rolled out an experiment last year to offer bonuses to some teachers and other staff in hard-to-fill positions, such as psychologists, nurses and speech language pathologists.

The teachers union argued that the plan should have been negotiated first. An arbitrator agreed and issued a report recommending that the pilot program stop immediately and that the district negotiate any future offerings. The union and school board are set to start negotiations next month about how to change teacher pay, using new money voters approved in November.

When school board members first considered the arbitrator’s report last month, they declined to accept the findings, which were not binding. That raised concerns for union members that the district might implement bonuses again without first negotiating them.

Tuesday’s new resolution, approved on a 5-1 vote, accepted the full arbitrator’s report and its recommendations. Board member Monica Colbert voted against the motion, and board member Kevin Cox was absent.

Back in January 2018, school board members approved a budget amendment that included $1.8 million to create the pilot for incentivizing hard-to-fill positions. On Tuesday, board member Cathy Wildman said she thought through the budget vote, the school board may have allowed the district to create that incentive program, even though the board now accepts the finding that they should have worked with union before trying this experiment.

“It was a board decision at that time to spend that amount on hard-to-fill positions,” Wildman said.

Board president Marques Ivey said he was not initially convinced by the arbitrator’s position, but said that he later read more and felt he could change his vote based on having more information.

Last month, the Aurora school board discussed the report with its attorney in a closed-door executive session. When the board met in public afterward, it chose not to uphold the entire report, saying that the board could not “come to an agreement.” Instead board members voted on a resolution that asked the school district to negotiate any future “long-term” incentive programs.

Union president Bruce Wilcox called the resolution “poorly worded” and slammed the board for not having the discussion in public, calling it a “backroom deal.” Several other teachers also spoke to the board earlier this month, reminding the newest board members’ of their campaign promises to increase transparency.

Board members responded by saying that they did not hold an official vote; rather the board was only deciding how to proceed in public. Colorado law prohibits schools boards from taking positions, or votes, in private.

The board on Tuesday also pushed the district to provide more detailed information about the results of the pilot and survey results that tried to quantify how it affected teachers deciding to work in Aurora.