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Teachers vote unanimously to strike at one of Chicago’s oldest charter schools

By staff |
May 6, 2017
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Chicago, IL - Union educators at Passages Charter School voted overwhelmingly to strike, May 4, after nearly a year of bargaining with management has failed to produce a decent contract. Teachers voted 43 to zero to strike, in a bargaining unit of 46 members. The May 4 vote authorizes the bargaining committee to set a strike date in the coming weeks if they do not receive an acceptable offer.

The strike would be the first of a charter school network in the nation.

Passages was one of the first charter schools created in Chicago, and today serves roughly 500 students -- including a large population of immigrant and refugee students of Asian and African heritage. Passages’ 46 union educators - including teachers, teachers assistants and paraprofessionals - were certified last April as members of ChiACTS Local 4343, which represents educators at 32 charter schools in Chicago. The school’s educators have been negotiating for a new contract since May of 2016.

“We care deeply about our students,” says third grade teacher Gina Mengarelli, a member of Passages’ ChiACTS bargaining team. “Many of our kids, as refugees and immigrants, look to the school as an environment to support the hopes and dreams they bring to their new country. It is simply wrong for management to invest so little in these children and the frontline workers who are responsible for their education. The primary reason we formed a union at Passages in the first place was so that we could have more voice in decisions that affect our students. And now we’re demanding a contract that allows that.”

The union educators charge that the school’s management spends too much on management and overhead compared to other single-site charters, and too little on staff and students. Many teachers with BAs and even master’s degrees earn salaries in the $30,000 - $40,000 range for work weeks that can top 60 hours. Spending on students’ education at Passages is also at the bottom of the barrel among comparable publicly-funded charter schools in Chicago.

At the same time, the current and former CEOs of AHS - Asian Human Services, the agency that runs Passages - together last year earned more than twice that of Forrest Claypool, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and its 400,000 students. Last year, Passages paid their retired CEO $381,000 - and paid $540,000 in total last year to two people, their current and former CEOs. The combined current salaries for Passages’ 46 bargaining unit members is $1.7 million.

Besides refusing to consider teachers’ proposals to improve compensation, which is currently on average 20% lower than that at comparable charter schools in Chicago, management has also proposed eliminating paid maternity and paternity leave, a proposal completely unacceptable to educators at a workplace where the vast majority of employees are women. In addition, management in recent years has cut classes that include music and Spanish, which, along with Urdu, is the language most commonly spoken by immigrant students, and failed to fulfill promises to create recreational programs like basketball for students.

Teachers are also calling for greater fiscal oversight at the school, including improvements in the percentage of dollars that management spends on students instead of on its own compensation.

AHS spends a greater percentage of the Passages school budget on management costs and a lower percentage on direct student and personnel costs than every other single-site charter in the city except one. The average single-site charter spends a quarter on management and overhead for every dollar they spend on school staff and students, whereas Passages spends 50 cents for every dollar. Passages is also an outlier when it comes to teacher salaries, with teachers earning 20% less than teachers at other Chicago charters. That low spending level for the school’s dedicated teachers and staff lands Passages far below the average in budget comparisons across charters.

“We really believe in the mission of this school, but management needs to provide us the resources to carry out that mission, says Passages paraprofessional Ann Stella-Tayler. We’ve been negotiating for almost a year, and our members are united in telling AHS that it’s past time that they treat Passages students, teachers and staff fairly.”

Passages has no income outside of what it collects from Chicago Public Schools, and union members charge that the disparity in salaries for Passages educators and those at other charters is driven by AHS mismanagement of funds and the fact that AHS simply does not contribute enough to the school’s budget from its own funds. Chicago’s other single-site charters typically provide 5-10% of their financial resources from private fundraising revenue - a practice touted in the early days of the CPS push for charters as a way to harness private dollars to support publicly funded education. Passages raises zero dollars from private fundraising revenue.

“These educators are the heart of the school and their students’ greatest advocates,” says Chris Baehrend, President of ChiACTS Local 4343. “No teacher wants to strike. We want to be in class, with our students, where we belong. But if it takes a strike to force change that improves the education of Passages’ students, then our members will be on the picket line until we achieve those improvements.”

Passages’ union educators will be back at the bargaining table next week.

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