Deadline near in DPS recall effort

Updated 9:15 a.m.: City elections officials today said it’s too late for a recall election to occur June 7, the date set aside for a possible Denver mayoral runoff. Denver Public Schools would have to pay the costs of a separate election, estimated at $100,000.

Critics of Denver Public Schools board president Nate Easley say they’ll turn in thousands of signatures by the close of business Tuesday, meeting a deadline to trigger a recall election likely in late June.

Denver Public Schools students at a recent rally
Both sides in the recall effort say the education of DPS students is the top concern.

Recall organizer John McBride said last week that more than 5,363 signatures – the minimum needed to initiate what would be a recall election by mail – will be submitted at 3:30 p.m., beating the 5 p.m. deadline. He declined to be more specific about the number of names in hand as of Friday.

McBride said Take Back Our Schools, the political committee for which he is registered agent, still does not even have a bank account and remains a grassroots effort.

“I’ve spent a little, for some fliers,” said McBride, who is head of the Northeast Community Congress for Education. “The people doing this are all doing it out of their own pockets.”

Once the Easley recall signatures are submitted, the Denver Elections Division must determine whether Easley opponents have turned in the required minimum, which is equal to 40 percent of those who voted when Easley was elected from Far Northeast Denver in November 2009.

If city elections officials determine sufficient valid signatures were collected, and those signatures withstand any subsequent formal protest that might be filed, they’ll set a date for a recall vote, likely the last week of June. Replacement candidates would be listed on the same ballot.

With a vote yet to be set, the effort has already stoked passions in opposing factions deeply invested in district policy, prompting political leaders to weigh in on DPS reform plans and even spawning a satirical anonymous website, purporting to be created by Easley but clearly the work of someone intent on sabotaging his image.

As for what candidates might appear on a potential recall ballot to replace Easley, McBride declined to give names. He added that there could be “maybe about five,” including some who unsuccessfully sought the District 4 seat along with Easley.

“I know one name that will not be on it,” said McBride, who ran unsuccessfully for the DPS board in 2007. “Mine.”

FNE Denver school board
vote totals Nov. 2009
  • Nate Easley – 4,532
  • Vernon Jones – 3,783
  • Andrea Mosby – 2,522
  • Jacqui Shumway – 1,504
  • Alton Clark – 1,067
  • See source document

Easley’s opponents in 2009 were Alton Clark, Vernon Jones, Andrea Mosby and Jacqui Shumway. Jones, who came in second with 28 percent of the vote to Easley’s 34 percent, did not rule out running again and said in a statement that he is “very concerned about who might represent us if the recall efforts are successful.”

A rally backing the district reform plans that Easley supports was held Thursday outside the downtown offices of DPS. Because it was organized by the non-profit advocacy groups Education Reform Now and Stand for Children, who are prohibited from endorsing political candidates, participants said they could not specifically address the Easley recall.

But the 60-plus students, parents and educators on hand that day left no doubt that they embrace the turnaround policies endorsed by DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg and supported by Easley.

“We have an unbelievable opportunity, and are at a crossroads,” said Zach Rahn, assistant principal at Cole Arts and Science Academy in Northeast Denver, which was restructured in fall 2008. “Now is not the time to slow down, nor is it the time to say this cannot be done, because we know this is simply not true.”

Easley attended the rally but did not address the group.

“It’s really disappointing in that it will take a lot of my time,” he said of the recall effort. “Instead of attending community meetings and giving feedback, I’ll be campaigning. And as long as you’re campaigning, that’s a different mode from sitting around and thinking about what can we do to improve our schools.

“Instead, I’ll be having to market why I am worthy of staying on the board.”

Alleging a conflict of interest

The Tuesday deadline comes 60 days after McBride’s recall paperwork was approved by city elections officials. He and others have been gathering signatures at grocery stores and during neighborhood walks since then.

Petition-gatherer Ray Traudt carries a sign at a northeast Safeway store on a recent weekend.
Petition-gatherer Ray Traudt carries a sign at a northeast Safeway store on a recent weekend.

The recall petition alleges a conflict of interest created by Easley’s role as school board president and his job as deputy director of the Denver Scholarship Foundation.

This, according to the petition, makes Easley “subject to undue influence related to his votes as our representative” because “As a board member, Dr. Easley supervises the DPS superintendent who is also a member of the foundation’s leadership team, thereby having direct influence over Dr. Easley’s employment status.”

As a consequence, according to petitioners, “Dr. Easley has consistently voted for policies that are not reflective of his constituents’ interests, closing schools, supporting an atmosphere of distrust among District employees, and failing to provide sound fiscal oversight of DPS monies.”

Next steps in the recall timeline

  • Once signatures are turned in, the Denver Elections Division has 10 days to certify the legitimacy of the required minimum 5,363 signatures.
  • If 5,363 or more valid signatures are certified, that triggers a 15-day “protest” period during which a challenge can be raised.
  • After any protest is resolved, or if no protest action is filed, the Denver Elections Division will set a date for the recall election.
  • It’s too late for the recall election to occur June 7, elections officials said today, which is the date reserved for a possible runoff for Denver mayor.
  • That means a separate election would be required for a recall so Denver Public Schools must pick up the costs, estimated at $100,000.
  • Candidates can put themselves on the ballot to replace Nate Easley by submitting a minimum of 50 signatures.
  • The names of replacement candidates must be released no fewer than 67 days prior to the election.
  • Only the 93,441 registered voters who live within DPS’ District 4 would be eligible to vote.

Easley and staff at the Denver Scholarship Foundation deny the allegations.

Dana Smith, the foundation’s communications director, said Boasberg is an ex-officio member of the board, meaning he does not vote. And the board hires only one employee, its executive director, not Easley.

Easley said he met with DPS general counsel John Kechriotis in March 2009, when he was still contemplating a run for the Denver school board, to explore whether there would be a conflict between his foundation job and service on the school board. Kechriotis told him there was not and the attorney subsequently signed an affidavit, dated Feb. 9, 2011, to that effect.

But Easley’s supporters don’t believe the recall effort is really about a conflict of interest.

They say staunch opponents of the reform agenda backed by Boasberg have zeroed in on Easley as a means of erasing the 4-3 board majority supportive of the superintendent’s reform philosophies.

“There would be no reason to go through this, unless there was some bigger motive, and that would make sense,” said school board member Mary Seawell.

“It’s not about Nate,” Seawell added. “It’s about a larger agenda, I think – changing the direction of the board and the district.”

Easley said he was warned prior to the board’s Nov. 18 vote on a reform proposal for Montbello High School and others in Far Northeast Denver that if he voted for it, he would face a recall attempt.

He said the threat was made by Jorge Merida, a community activist in Northeast Denver and the father of DPS board member Andrea Merida, and that both McBride and another man, Chuck Crowley, were witnesses.

Jorge Merida did not respond to requests for comment by phone and through his daughter. Merida, like McBride, is active in the Northeast Community Congress for Education, which formed after an abrupt decision to overhaul Manual High School in 2006.

On the night of the Montbello reform vote, Easley told the audience, “If I’m recalled, so be it. I’m going to vote my conviction.” He then voted with three other board members for a 4-3 majority approving the plan.

Easley said he still does not regret his vote four months ago, though he remains convinced it is the true motivation for the current bid to unseat him.

“For me to vote against Boasberg’s plan to improve schools and student achievement in my district is essentially a vote of no confidence in the superintendent,” said Easley.

“And I’m not prepared to do that. I don’t have any evidence that what Tom is suggesting is not going to be good for the district.”

Accelerating activity as petition deadline nears

Activity on both sides of the recall effort has picked up in recent weeks as the signature deadline nears.

Easley critics called for a picketing on March 19 at the Green Valley Ranch Golf Country Club, where the school board president was being honored during a reception.

DPS parent MiDian Holmes spoke at a Thursday rally supporting the district's reform proposals.
DPS parent MiDian Holmes spoke at a Thursday rally supporting the district's reform proposals.

Thursday’s rally at DPS backing the reform proposals that Easley has supported featured Colorado’s former lieutenant governor, Barbara O’Brien, and was publicized with the help of Group Gordon, a New York-based marketing company that works with Education Reform Now and Stand for Children.

Easley supporters also have gathered for explicit fund-raisers, including a March 21 event at the home of Van Schoales, head of Education Reform Now, that was co-hosted by, among others, State Board of Education member Elaine Gantz Berman and Elbra Wedgeworth, the former city councilwoman who chaired the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

Gov. John Hickenlooper and former Denver mayors Wellington Webb and Federico Peña also have lent their names to opposition of the Easley recall.

In its second campaign filing due March 18, the committee supporting Easley called Easley 4 Better Schools showed $19,265.29 in new contributions, on top of $16,275 from its first report, for a total exceeding $35,540.

See the reports

Nearly $20,000 of Easley’s reported contributions to date come from members of the Denver Scholarship Foundation board of directors or its advisory council. The single largest donation has come from board member David Scanavino, who pitched in $10,000 during the prior reporting cycle.

Expenditures to date are reported at $10,831.70, leaving a balance of $24,708.59. The lion’s share of expenditures have gone to Victoria Scott-Haynes – $3,500 for her services as campaign manager and $3,350 for canvassing.

Take Back Our Schools, the committee opposing Easley, missed its first state-mandated filing deadline by four days. When it did file March 7, it showed no contributions and no expenditures. The group is not obligated to file another report until April 19.

Rich Coolidge, spokesman for the Colorado Secretary of State, said people working as part of a coordinated effort fall under the rules for what are called issue committees, and can spend up to $200 out of their own pockets, before having to report anything to the state. Once that $200 threshold is reached, Coolidge said, they are required to report each and every expenditure of $20 or more.

McBride said recall supporters, who have spent little but pocket money, were courted early in their campaign by companies offering to collect signatures for a fee.

“There were two companies that came to us with proposals (for paid signature gathering) early on, and we decided against it,” he said.

Colorado law permits petition circulators to be paid per signature, but such compensation cannot constitute more than 20 percent of the total pay for their employment.

“We decided to stay with the grassroots approach. We haven’t paid anybody to collect signatures for our group,” said McBride.

On paying signature-gatherers

  • As Easley opponents were gathering signatures, a posting briefly appeared on the Facebook page for Democrats for Excellent Neighborhood School Education, a group backing the recall, seeking petition signature-gathers to be paid up to $1.50 for confirmed signatures.
  • The posting carried a phone number – numerous calls were not returned.
  • “They told me that was a mistake, and that it was pulled off the ‘Net,” said recall organizer John McBride. “That was my understanding. I was very clear that we were not paying for signatures.”
  • After numerous calls and emails to DeFENSE, the group responded by email: “Our recall spokesman, John McBride, has already responded to your inquiries. Our response is that we will be making a statement at the time we turn in our recall signatures … For now, we have no further comment.”
  • The message was signed simply, “DeFENSE.”

However, as signatures were being collected earlier this month, a posting briefly appeared on the Facebook page for Democrats for Excellent Neighborhood School Education (DeFENSE) seeking petition signature-gatherers to be paid up to $1.50 for confirmed signatures. It did not say what the signatures were for, identifying the cause only as a “progressive” campaign.

DeFENSE is actively engaged in supporting the Easley recall, urging visitors to its website to “Hold Nate Accountable,” to rally in his opposition and to sign recall petitions.

In the early days of DeFENSE, the site bore the phone number of DPS board member Merida as a point of contact. She also designed the website and she is described as a founding member in one bio. But Merida has repeatedly said she has no hand in the recall effort and is “neutral” on the issue.

“I have no involvement whatsoever with the DeFENSE members that are working with the recall,” she said. “There are policy issues they are interested in, and I am part of that. There are other parts of this city, you know.”

Similar posts seeking paid signature-gatherers also appeared on Craigslist and the Square State website. They included the same contact number as the post that appeared on the DeFENSE Facebook page.

Numerous calls to that number – a Google phone account allowing callers only to leave a message – were not returned.

McBride acknowledged that the DeFENSE Facebook page had briefly advertised for paid petition signature-gathering.

“They told me that was a mistake, and that it was pulled off the ‘Net,” said McBride. “That was my understanding. I was very clear that we were not paying for signatures.”

DeFENSE has been criticized by Easley boosters for what they say is its lack of transparency. The domain name,, is registered with Domains by Proxy, which allows domain holders to remain private and carries the trademark “Your identity is nobody’s business but ours.”

The DeFENSE site offers no names under its “Contact Us” button, although a posting on its home page about the recall effort lists the name Mandy and a number. Repeated calls to the number and emails to a general information email address on the DeFENSE site were not returned for several days.

Finally, an inquiry resulted in this emailed response, early Friday:

“Our recall spokesman, John McBride, has already responded to your inquiries. Our response is that we will be making a statement at the time we turn in our recall signatures. You, with the rest of the press, will be notified via press release about the details of that. For now, we have no further comment.”

That message was signed simply, “DeFENSE.”

Perceptions, complaints and rebuttals

McBride said he is aware that the district’s legal counsel had advised Easley that there was no conflict between his foundation job and his school board post.

“But that’s just legalities,” he said. “The perception is that he is controlled by his bosses on that particular board. The legality is one thing. But he’ll follow the patterns they want him to follow.”

Mary Sam, left, a retired DPS teacher who is supporting the Easley recall, speaks to a shopper at a northeast Safeway store.
PHOTO: Daarel Burnette
Mary Sam, left, a retired DPS teacher who is supporting the Easley recall, gathers signatures outside a northeast Safeway store.

The complaints from Easley’s critics do not end with the conflict of interest charge. In fact, a circular distributed during recent signature gathering outside a northeast Safeway store listed that fifth among eight reasons for his recall.

Right above that, at number four, was “Easley fails to listen to community concerns and doesn’t show up at community meetings.” That’s a complaint voiced by Mario Ramirez, an Oakland Elementary parent active in gathering signatures against Easley for DeFENSE.

“I tried to get hold of him a couple times and … nothing,” said Ramirez, who is upset that Oakland is to be replaced by a SOAR charter school under the district’s reform plan, despite what he believes was inadequate community input.

“And he’s missed some important community meetings,” said Ramirez. “So if he’s not going to be concerned about the community … ”

Easley insists such complaints are ill-founded.

“I’ve made myself accessible to the public,” he said. “I give my cell phone out liberally. At the end of the day, I do have a full-time job and it’s not possible for me to make every meeting. But I do everything in my power to make it to as many meetings as possible. I think it’s bogus.”

John McBride

He is similarly dismissive of the rest of his opponents’ grievances; number one on the flier handed out at the Safeway was, “Easley supports the firing of entire school staff including teachers, ‘lunch ladies’ and janitors.”

“I think a lot of this is trumped up, and maybe some of their frustrations are with other elected officials,” Easley said. “You need to question their motives.”

The complaints go on.

A flier promoting the picketing of Easley a week ago at the Green Valley Ranch Golf Country Club, which appeared on the DeFENSE website, proclaimed “Shame!” on him for  “Allowing DPS to fire or suspend 140 African American veteran teachers, who now make up less than 1% of the DPS teaching staff.”

DPS spokesman Michael Vaughn questioned the source of the statistics, which are at odds with those included in a diversity update presented publicly at a school board meeting last June.

That report for 2009-10 showed 15 African-American teachers were displaced due to a reduction in teaching positions at their schools and another 10 black teachers had contracts that were not renewed. The same report shows African-American teachers make up 4.9 percent of the DPS teaching force.

Nate Easley

“It’s unfortunate to see such transparently false information about our schools being spread by an anonymous website for purely political reasons,” Vaughn said.

Larry Borom, a longtime member of the district’s Black Education Advisory Council, is listed as the contact person for the event. He said Sunday that the statistics concerning firings and suspensions of black teachers reflect the “inside assessments” of “knowledgeable insiders,” and added, “I think they are probably pretty much on target.”

Borom referred further questions on the issue to DeFENSE. However, he added, “I agree with them as far as their general authenticity.”

Like Vaughn, Easley takes issues with the numbers. He also denied that he can, or should, be held personally accountable for individual hirings and firings.

“It’s a complete lie,” Easley said. “I don’t have that authority. I voted with the majority to support the district recommendations. I wasn’t voted in to manage the district. I was voted in to oversee the district from a policy perspective.”

He added, “I don’t claim to have enough information on individual cases, to reverse decisions that the instructional superintendent, the H.R. department and the principal all collaborated on.”

As for the satirical website showing him in a negative light, Easley said he consulted with an attorney to see what, if anything, he could do about it. That site also tracks back to the popular privacy service Domains by Proxy, used for millions of domains.

Easley said he was told that, as an elected official, there was little he could do about being lampooned. The site also lampoons his supporters, such as Hickenlooper.

“If that’s how they say they’re going to improve student achievement, I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with them,” Easley said.

“But it’s typical,” he added. “It’s deceitful, duplicitous, it’s underhanded and it’s no way to improve student achievement. I think it’s misguided.”

EdNews asked the other six members of Denver’s school board for their position on the recall effort against board president Nate Easley, who represents Northeast Denver, District 4:

Theresa Peña, elected citywide:

“I am completely opposed to it. I think Nate represents the best of what DPS needs to offer all of our students. He has walked in the shoes of the kids whose needs are not well met, and has aspirations for all kids in DPS to achieve what he personally has, and more.”

Mary Seawell, elected citywide:

“I’m against it, because I don’t think the grounds are real or that he has a conflict. And I think if people are unhappy with anyone on the school board, you wait for an election. This isn’t a proper use of a recall, and I don’t think he should be targeted like this.”

Bruce Hoyt, Southeast Denver, District 1:

“I am against the recall. I think Nate is doing a terrific job, both as a new board member and, for being thrown in as board president, he is doing a terrific job and has done nothing that should create a need or a desire for recall. I don’t know of any truly serious person of standing in this community that supports the recall, including every mayoral candidate, ex-mayors and business leaders.”

Andrea Merida, Southwest Denver, District 2:

“I’m neutral. This is a great time for him to reconnect with his community, though. The community is offering him the opportunity to do that.”

Jeannie Kaplan, Central Denver, District 3:

“I have no opinion on the recall. However, I will say, regarding the many educational challenges facing Denver Public Schools at this time, EdNews should be part of the solution, not part of the problem. EdNews appears to be looking for stories that unnecessarily divide people, not stories that try to bring them together to solve problems.”

Arturo Jimenez, Northwest Denver, District 5:

“I thought it was a waste of resources. I have no position on it. I don’t think it will be successful. I am just busy doing the work of the school board.”

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.