Raising their profile

With campaigning aldermen in tow, striking Chicago teachers target statewide charter lobbyist

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat
Chicago mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle, left, joined striking Chicago International Charter Schools teachers on a picket line at the Illinois Network of Charter Schools on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019.

The Chicago Teachers Union stepped up its pressure campaign on administrators of a second striking Chicago charter with a rainy day picket in front of the downtown offices of a key pro-charter lobbying group on Thursday.

The union also used to the picket to stage a moment of political theatre by inviting several of the candidates it has endorsed for alderman and its handpicked candidate for mayor, Toni Preckwinkle, to join the rally. Chicago’s first round of municipal elections are Feb. 26.

“Working conditions for teachers are learning conditions for kids. I’m here to support the teachers and the students they teach,” said Preckwinkle, with the chants of educators repeating “Shut it down” behind her.  “I really think it’s important to settle the strike and get the teachers back in the classroom and the children back in the classroom. We can only do that if (Chicago International) comes to the table.”

Pay remains a sticking point between the teachers’ union and Civitas Education Partners, which manages four striking schools under the larger Chicago International Charter Schools umbrella.

CICS management said it had offered a 30 percent raise over four years that would put teachers on par with salaries at district-run schools. The union said that proposal comes with trade-offs that are too high — inequitable distribution of raises, cuts to support staff, and neglect of paraprofessionals.

The strike affects 180 teachers and paraprofessionals at four schools that together serve about 2,200 students.

Lakeisha Poole, the parent of a first grader at CICS Wrightwood named Isaiah, joined the picket line Thursday, hugged her son’s teacher, and tried to shield the little boy from the rain as she described his recent academic progress in the classroom. “It’s all from help from my son’s teacher. My teachers ask for $30,000, and a teacher at (Chicago Public Schools) makes $60,000? That’s not right. These people put their all into our children,” Poole said.

She said the strike week had served as an awakening for her because it highlighted the charter network’s complex management structure and the fees paid toward administration that don’t go to the classroom. She also said parents also received an email early in the week that suggested students would be penalized for non-attendance, but subsequent emails had walked that back. “If Civitas doesn’t get it together, I’ll move him to another school.”

The union is hoping to gain wider attention by moving the picket lines Thursday to the Michigan Avenue office of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, an influential lobbying group that advises charter managers on operations and is active in Springfield on the legislative front.

The group is affiliated with an INCS Action PAC and a related INCS Action super PAC that together reported about $2 million in cash on hand at the end of the 2018.  

Here’s a look back at the week on the CICS picket lines:

governance

Aurora school board considers whether to close or renew large charter school

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
File photo of book bins in a charter school classroom.

The Aurora school board is considering whether to renew a charter school — if it meets a long list of conditions — even though it has ignored district concerns about its finances and governing board.

The board last renewed Vanguard Classical School’s charter for just one year, because of concerns over conflicts of interest. Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said he struggled with the renewal recommendation, due in December, because he first planned to recommend closure, but then decided to give Vanguard more time to provide information.

“The ultimate thing that I keep very heavily in mind around this kind of question is whether or not student needs are being met,” Munn said. “In this circumstance, we have not had any question about their student needs being met. In that context I felt very reluctant to recommend revocation.”

The Aurora school board will make its decision March 5.

Among conditions for Vanguard, the district suggests the school replace its board to include two parents and exclude employees of Ability Connection Colorado, a non-profit that founded the school and is now contracted to manage some services for Vanguard.

School leaders told the Aurora school board on Tuesday that they’re willing to comply with the conditions, and said they are making changes already. Previously, school leaders denied problems with governance, blaming some district concerns on misunderstandings.

Vanguard’s two campuses serve more than 1,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. About 9 percent of its students qualify for special education.

The nonprofit Ability Connection Colorado opened the school in 2007. The organization, which provides education and programs for people with special needs, is led by CEO Judy Ham, who also serves as the board president of the school.

Since it opened, the school has paid the nonprofit for administrative work in human resources, risk management and nutrition and financial services.

District officials have repeatedly said that it is a conflict of interest for Ham to vote on or sign contracts between the nonprofit and the school. The district was also concerned that the contract with Ability Connection Colorado didn’t clearly list the services it was to provide to the school and wasn’t awarded through a competitive process.

One former Vanguard teacher, Audrey Monaco, whose position was cut in December, explained that staff have repeatedly complained to their school board about Ability Connection’s services.

“Every person has a story about human resources,” Monaco said.

She and other employees have complained about unpaid benefits, dropped insurance, and missing documents. Monaco said that in the four years she worked at Vanguard, she had to provide her teaching license to the same Human Resource employee three times.

“I was like, where are you losing my confidential information?” Monaco said. “This was pretty upsetting to me.”

Monaco said she didn’t understand why the non-profit kept getting the contract when services didn’t measure up. However, one of the employees of Abilities Connection was Ham’s daughter, she said. District documents also reference concerns with Ham’s daughter, an employee of Ability Connection.

The Aurora district’s proposed conditions would require Vanguard to evaluate its service provider and to include a review of fair market values and survey responses from the Vanguard staff and families.

Another concern the district lists in its recommendation is about gaps in how the school tracks its finances. An audit, for example, showed money transfers to Ability Connection for about $465,000 that were not approved by the board and did not include itemized receipts. School officials later told the district the money was used for things like furniture, kitchen equipment and background checks, but did not provide documentation.

Munn noted that these issues could eventually affect how students are educated, though he doesn’t think they have yet.

“We think there are some organizational things around, just to be blunt, some adult issues that need to be fixed so that student needs can continue to be met,” Munn said.

Monaco believes the district’s conditions are fair and necessary so that the school can continue to operate.

But others, like Chad Smith, a parent of a 9-year-old student at the school, fear the district is using an “iron fist” to change the school.

“I believe Vanguard East and West was born from ACCO [Ability Connection] and I’m disappointed that you are demanding them to no longer have any influence or some kind of access to what their creation becomes,” Smith said. “I fear a new board will not be Vanguard Classical East or West, it will be whatever this new board chooses it to be. I hope it is still a school that I will want my daughter in.”

District board members seemed skeptical about renewing Vanguard’s charter after having had this same conversation about a year ago. Munn and Brandon Eyre, the district’s attorney who helps write charter contracts, said that because the district had less information a year ago about the problems at Vanguard, the conditions imposed last year weren’t enough to really address the problems, even if the school had complied.

As an example, district officials had asked the school to hire a new executive director. But district staff say they found that the current executive director “was hand-chosen by Judy Ham and presented to the Vanguard Board as the sole option for approval” — evidence that conditions meant to empower the board “failed.”

Aurora board member Dan Jorgensen noted that he has heard only good things about the school’s education and programs.

Board members asked if the district felt confident Vanguard would meet the conditions this time around. District staff explained that if the school doesn’t comply with the conditions by the deadlines set in the contract, the board could close the school at that time, without waiting until the end of the proposed two-year contract.

negotiations

Aurora school board reverses course, accepts finding that district should have negotiated bonuses with union

Students in a math class at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Following weeks of criticism, the Aurora school board on Tuesday reversed course and accepted an arbitrator’s finding that a pilot bonus system violated the district’s agreement with the teachers union.

The Aurora school district rolled out an experiment last year to offer bonuses to some teachers and other staff in hard-to-fill positions, such as psychologists, nurses and speech language pathologists.

The teachers union argued that the plan should have been negotiated first. An arbitrator agreed and issued a report recommending that the pilot program stop immediately and that the district negotiate any future offerings. The union and school board are set to start negotiations next month about how to change teacher pay, using new money voters approved in November.

When school board members first considered the arbitrator’s report last month, they declined to accept the findings, which were not binding. That raised concerns for union members that the district might implement bonuses again without first negotiating them.

Tuesday’s new resolution, approved on a 5-1 vote, accepted the full arbitrator’s report and its recommendations. Board member Monica Colbert voted against the motion, and board member Kevin Cox was absent.

Back in January 2018, school board members approved a budget amendment that included $1.8 million to create the pilot for incentivizing hard-to-fill positions. On Tuesday, board member Cathy Wildman said she thought through the budget vote, the school board may have allowed the district to create that incentive program, even though the board now accepts the finding that they should have worked with union before trying this experiment.

“It was a board decision at that time to spend that amount on hard-to-fill positions,” Wildman said.

Board president Marques Ivey said he was not initially convinced by the arbitrator’s position, but said that he later read more and felt he could change his vote based on having more information.

Last month, the Aurora school board discussed the report with its attorney in a closed-door executive session. When the board met in public afterward, it chose not to uphold the entire report, saying that the board could not “come to an agreement.” Instead board members voted on a resolution that asked the school district to negotiate any future “long-term” incentive programs.

Union president Bruce Wilcox called the resolution “poorly worded” and slammed the board for not having the discussion in public, calling it a “backroom deal.” Several other teachers also spoke to the board earlier this month, reminding the newest board members’ of their campaign promises to increase transparency.

Board members responded by saying that they did not hold an official vote; rather the board was only deciding how to proceed in public. Colorado law prohibits schools boards from taking positions, or votes, in private.

The board on Tuesday also pushed the district to provide more detailed information about the results of the pilot and survey results that tried to quantify how it affected teachers deciding to work in Aurora.