Nine Day Chicago Charter Teacher Walkout Ends

Charter school strike ending
Striking Chicago International Charter Schools teachers walk a picket line at Northtown Academy on the North Side last week. (Photo by Adriana Cardona-Maguigad, WBEZ)
Charter school strike ending
Striking Chicago International Charter Schools teachers walk a picket line at Northtown Academy on the North Side last week. (Photo by Adriana Cardona-Maguigad, WBEZ)

Nine Day Chicago Charter Teacher Walkout Ends

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

More than 2,000 Chicago students will be back in class Tuesday after a nine day teacher strike at four Chicago International Charter Schools was suspended early Monday morning.

About 175 teachers and staff agreed to go back to work after union leaders and charter operators threw their support behind a new tentative contract agreement — ending Chicago’s second charter school teacher strike since December. The nine day CICS strike surpassed the length of the 2012 seven day Chicago Teachers Union strike.

The four schools — Wrightwood Elementary, Northtown Academy High School, Ralph Ellison High School, and ChicagoQuest High school — will be back in session Tuesday morning. Monday was a day off for President’s Day.

Teachers and staff will vote in the coming weeks on the four-year contract that promises higher pay for teachers and staff, and a class size limit that both sides consider manageable.

The deal reached Monday morning also includes a guarantee of social workers and counselors at each campus, a school day for teachers that’s seven hours and 45 minutes long, and a teacher school year of  190 days. The current teacher school day is eight hours and the year is 202 days.

The deal came despite protestations by CICS throughout the strike that they couldn’t afford to meet all the teachers’ demands. CICS officials said there will be cuts at the school level to pay for the contract, adding that if they had “met all of CTU’s financial demands, the four schools would become insolvent and been forced to close.” 

The pressure to reach a deal as the strike entered week three was intense. The Chicago Teachers Union, which absorbed the city’s charter school unions in a merger last year, staged multiple protests to ramp up the pressure. Several public officials, including U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, weighed in to support the striking teachers and to call for an end to the strike.

Throughout the negotiations, teachers and staff fought for salaries that mirror the pay scale of Chicago Public Schools teachers and they succeeded. Teachers will receive an immediate raise averaging eight percent and will meet or exceed CPS salary rates by the last year of the contract. Overall, teacher salaries will increase by an average of 31 percent over four years, according to CICS. Teachers will be placed on a salary schedule that takes into account advanced degrees, union leaders said in a statement. 

This deal also raises support staff pay to the CPS schedule and guarantees social workers and school counselors at each campus and a maximum class size of 28 students, according to CICS. CTU says the deal reached includes a goal of 28 students and a maximum of 30. The class size cap is 29 currently, but isn’t enforced.

In a statement, CICS officials said they are relieved Civitas Education Partners, the private company hired by CICS to oversee these four schools, reached a tentative deal.

“The past two weeks have brought heightened emotions, divisions and challenges,” CICS said. “Now, the entire community of students, parents and teachers at CEP have the opportunity to come together and heal.”

Teachers and staff from four schools walked off the job on Feb. 5 after contract talks broke down. The contract expired in August and negotiations began in May.

A central issue in the negotiations and the strike was the union’s criticism of CICS’ multilayered management system that teachers argued takes money away from the classroom.

For months, CICS officials say they didn’t have the money to pay for teachers’ demands. But union leaders disagreed accusing CICS officials of hoarding up to $36 million in reserves.

“To say that they don’t have the money to improve conditions in the school is ridiculous,” Northtown math teacher Jennifer Conant said during the strike.

CICS officials deny they are sitting on $36 million.They say they have about half that amount for all 14 schools, which they argue is less than what the Illinois State Board of Educations recommends a school network keep in reserves.

In the statement today, CICS officials said there will be some negative consequences under this new deal.

“With the limited funding that is an unfortunate reality in public education, in order to pay for such a significant salary increase, we will be forced to make certain cuts and compromises,” CICS said. “For example, we will likely need to limit the number of instructional coaches, assistant principals and other valuable support staff members.”

CICS has a total of 14 schools managed by five different private companies — Including Civitas. In addition, it employs 13 staffers to oversee the four school.

CICS is in charge of managing day-to-day operations, including IT services, Human resources needs, facilities. However, the network is not in charge of hiring and firing decisions. The five private companies focus on education outcomes and academics.

In recent days, the Chicago Teachers Union organized a series of events to put pressure on CICS officials. They staged a sit-in in the building lobby of CICS Board President Laura Thonn’s office and visited Mayor Rahm Emanuel the next day asking him to intervene. On Friday - Duckworth met with union leaders to pledge her support.

At a state legislative hearing earlier this month, lawmakers questioned the logic behind CICS’ management structure.

“It sounds like layer, upon layer of administrative bloat, money that could be going in the classroom,” said state representative Emanuel “Chris” Welch.

No one from CICS or Civitas attended the hearing. But in a statement, CICS officials said  those contracts help students achieve better academic outcomes.

No classes were held during the strike but CICS kept the schools open, though attendance was low.

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @AdrianaCardMag.