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Chicago principals will join administrators in other big cities, including New York City, Denver and Philadelphia, who already have the right to bargain collectively.

Manuel Martinez

A bill giving Chicago principals bargaining rights is headed to the governor's desk

A bill that grants Chicago Public Schools principals collective bargaining rights passed the Illinois Senate on Friday morning and now only needs the governor’s signature to become law.

The legislation, approved with bipartisan support in a 45-7 vote, would recognize a Chicago principals and assistant principals union and put them across the table from senior district leadership for contract negotiations. The bill, if signed into law, would not allow a principals’ union to strike.

A spokeswoman for Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he’s “looking forward to reviewing [the bill] now that it is headed to his desk.” The legislation passed the Illinois House in March.

If the bill is signed and Chicago principals are able to move forward with a bargaining unit, they would join districts such as New York City, San Diego and Denver where principals are unionized. Denver principals did so in 2020.

State Sen. Robert Peters, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said it was time principals had more of a voice. “CPS is not only the largest school district in the state, but one of the largest in the nation,” Peters said in a statement. “I believe we should trust its principals to help create solutions to build a better work environment.”

CPS principals have fought for years for the right of union representation, arguing they’re in no-man’s land without a say in broad district policies along with an inability to collectively bargain their working conditions.

The bill would not take away local school councils’ power to hire principals or decide whether or not to renew their contracts.

Troy LaRaviere, a former CPS principal and president of the Chicago Principals & Administrators Association since 2016, has strongly advocated for unionization rights for years. He said the finish line is the governor’s signature, “but we’ve gone further than we’ve come before.” Similar bills have advanced before only to fail in one chamber or the other.

“I’ve put four years of my life into this,” LaRaviere said in an interview Friday.

LaRaviere has said principals know the most about schools and need more of a voice in discussions. He also has argued that school leaders are underpaid, considering the hours they are supposed to work.

A principals’ union would aim to protect administrators’ time, refocusing their efforts on leading schools rather than “spending all day responding to one district mandate after another and being an overpaid clerk,” he said.

“During the pandemic, principals spent most of their time contact tracing, not problem-solving, not coaching teachers, not looking to hire the best and the brightest — contact tracing, something that should be handled by the CPS bureaucracy,” LaRaviere said.

Administrators also want a say in district-wide policies and better pay and benefits. The average salary for all assistant principals and principals is $139,541 this year. This includes administrators who are interim, acting and permanent.

“We are absolutely going to be trying to establish a compensation model that attracts and retains the best educators into our ranks,” LaRaviere said, noting the long hours administrators put into their jobs.

LaRaviere also noted that his organization wanted the no-strike provision included in the bill.

“We wanted to make it clear that we want collaboration, not conflict,” he said.

The school district has been against principal unionization in the past, but LaRaviere said CPS did not oppose the bill in the Senate this time around.

CPS spokeswoman Mary Fergus indicated support in a statement Friday, saying the district plans to “collaborate with administrators … as [they] become eligible for possible unionization.” Fergus said CPS also supports “statewide implementation of this legislation as the tenets hold true for all school districts.” The bill, as written, only grants bargaining rights to CPS principals, not those in other municipalities.

CPAA membership has been optional for CPS school administrators. The organization provides legal support and advocates on behalf of principals. It’s an affiliate of the American Federation of School Administrators and the AFL-CIO. But Illinois law identified principals as managers, who are barred from collective bargaining. Thus, principals and assistant principals have not had an exclusive bargaining unit to represent them.

Under the bill, principals would be reclassified from managers to supervisors, a distinction based on the fact that principals do not represent the district in negotiating collective bargaining agreements with worker unions, such as the Chicago Teachers Union.

CPAA won’t immediately become principals’ exclusive bargaining representative — a vote may have to take place to make that official. But LaRaviere expects that to happen quickly and hopes CPS voluntarily recognizes a principals’ union.

“We hope to use our place at the table to improve conditions for principals and students,” he said.

Nader Issa is the education reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

Lauren FitzPatrick of the Sun-Times contributed reporting to this story.

This story was been corrected to say Troy LaRaviere worked on the unionization bill for four years.

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