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Chicago teachers prepare for first charter school strike in U.S. history

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May 22, 2017
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Chicago, IL - Union educators at Passages Charter School announced that they will formally strike - and hit the picket lines, on May 25, if they are unable to reach a decent contract agreement with charter management by midnight, May 24. Teachers voted unanimously to strike on May 4, but held off from setting a date in the hopes that management would move from a hardline stance that includes rock-bottom wages, elimination of maternity and paternity leave, opposition to greater financial transparency, and insufficient resources to support classrooms.

Passages was one of the first charter schools created in Chicago, and today serves just under 500 students, including a large population of immigrant and refugee students of Asian and African heritage. Passages’ 47 union educators - teachers, teachers assistants and paraprofessionals - were certified last April as members of ChiACTS Local 4343, which represents 32 charter schools in Chicago. The school’s educators have been negotiating for a new contract since May of 2016.

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

“We really believe in the mission of this school and the students we serve, and it’s time for management to provide the resources we need to carry out that mission,” said third grade teacher Gina Mengarelli, a member of Passages’ ChiACTS bargaining team. “None of us wants to strike; we want to be in our classrooms with our students. And our bargaining team is committed to continuing to negotiate in good faith with AHS in hopes of reaching a fair contract. But if it takes a strike to force AHS [Asian Human Services] to make changes that improve the education of Passages’ students, then we will be on the picket line until we achieve those improvements.”

Passages’ refugee and immigrant students look to the school as an environment to support the hopes and dreams they bring to their new country. But management is failing those aspirations, say educators, by spending too much money on top brass 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 rock bottom among comparable publicly-funded charter schools in Chicago.

“One of the core reasons educators formed a union at Passages was to have more voice in decisions that affect their students,” said ChiACTS president Chris Baehrend. “We’ve been bargaining for a year for a contract that gives us that voice, and guarantees fair working conditions for teachers and staff and fair learning conditions for our students. Yet AHS to date has refused to make us an offer that provides for these most basic of demands. If it takes a strike to convince management that it’s time to put students and the teachers who are the backbone of their education first, then we have no choice but to strike.”

Management has not skimped on salaries for itself. For the most recent year for which figures are available, AHS, the agency that runs Passages, paid $540,000 in total to two people, their current and former CEOs - that’s over $1000 per student in compensation for those two positions alone, compared to Chicago Public School’s CEO Forrest Claypool’s compensation of less than $2 per student. The current and former CEOs of AHS together earned more than double that of Claypool, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, who earns $250,000 per year to run a system of just under 400,000 students. By way of comparison, the combined current salaries for Passages’ 47 bargaining unit members is $1.7 million, with teachers’ compensation averaging over 20% lower than that at comparable Chicago charter schools.

Despite repeated requests and FOIA filings, management has refused to make detailed financial information available to the bargaining team. That lack of financial transparency is now the subject of a pending claim with the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Bureau. Teachers are 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 fifty 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.

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 to 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.

Passages’ union educators returned to the bargaining table on May 19, just after announcing their strike date.

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