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Wage hikes vs. student services: As strike looms at second Chicago charter school, negotiations stall

With only one more bargaining session scheduled, teachers at four Chicago International Charter Schools are inching towards a Tuesday strike deadline that could affect more than 2,000 students and become the nation’s second charter school strike.

About 140 teachers and support staffers are demanding increased pay that rewards their education levels and experience, more counselors and a reduction in class sizes.

They’re also demanding accurate job descriptions. Erika Frazier has been a one-on-one special education paraprofessional at the charter network’s Ralph Ellison High in Auburn Gresham. In 11 years, she’s helped students individually and also taken on a host of other jobs.

“I’ve taught classes, I’ve done lesson plans, I’ve also covered the front desk. I pretty much have done all that you could look to do except be a custodian or administrator,” Frazier said.

Frazier wants a clear job description that would allow her to focus on her students. “We don’t want to have to shoulder things that are not our responsibilities.”

At the quiet campus of CICS Wrightwood Elementary in Ashburn on Friday morning, a staff training day, teachers clustered near brightly colored walls and banners announcing National School Choice Week — an initiative promoting charter and alternative schools. They held signs saying “the rich must pay their fair share.”

LeeAndra Khan, the charter network’s CEO, hovered near the door of an administrator’s office, greeting press and office staff as they settled into work.  Khan heads one of the management companies that runs four Chicago schools under the Chicago International Charter Schools umbrella.

In response to teachers’ demands, Khan said her hands were tied by the tight margins of public education funding.

“You cannot increase costs without increasing revenue, and there is no revenue-generating stream for public education,” she said. “We are trying to come to a number around how many students per counselor, per social worker, that is sustainable considering we are significantly increasing the cost of running schools.”

In a contrast to strife at other charter schools like December’s Acero teachers strike, where management made themselves scarce, Khan made herself a visible presence at Wrightwood on Friday morning.

The network added paraprofessionals to the contract in recent weeks.

Teachers said talks so far have produced gains on wages, but they are wary of any contract agreements coming at the cost of staffing in other areas, particularly in counseling. “We are telling management that is unacceptable, and our students deserve fully staffed schools with counselors and social workers,” said Jen Conant, a math teacher at CICS Northtown and a union chair representing teachers.  

They also argue that the network channels funding to the business side of the operation rather than to student services.

The strike would affect only a third of schools under the Chicago International umbrella, which covers 14 schools run by a handful of management companies. Educators at four of those schools are unionized — one run by Chicago Quest and three by Civitas Education Partners. The four schools are ChicagoQuest, Northtown Academy, Ralph Ellison and Wrightwood.

In January, Chicago’s teachers union delivered a list of 75 contract demands to the city on behalf of teachers in district-run schools, which doesn’t include charters with union contracts.

If Chicago International teachers go on strike, it will be the second charter teachers strike, following an Acero walkout that won teachers many of their demands in December.