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Chicago charter school teachers launch city’s latest strike after stalled contract negotiations

Educators at Wrightwood Elementary School, Ellison High School, Northtown Academy High School and ChicagoQuest High School have been bargaining for months with Civitas Education Partners, which manages those four CICS campuses. The 175 teachers and paraprofessionals, represented by the Chicago Teachers Union, rejected a recent proposal that union leaders described as inadequate. About 2,200 students attend those four schools

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Unionized educators at four Chicago International Charter School campuses went on strike Tuesday, launching the city’s second work stoppage at the independently operated campuses after hours of negotiations failed to reach a last-minute contract agreement.

Educators at Wrightwood Elementary School, Ellison High School, Northtown Academy High School and ChicagoQuest High School have been bargaining for months with Civitas Education Partners, which manages those four CICS campuses. The 175 teachers and paraprofessionals, represented by the Chicago Teachers Union, rejected a recent proposal that union leaders described as inadequate.

Striking workers began staging hours of demonstrations shortly after 6 a.m. Tuesday, halting regular classes for about 2,200 students who attend the four affected campuses.

“Go home!” picketers shouted as they marched and blocked an entrance to Wrightwood’s parking lot on Tuesday morning. “Take your children home!”

Vaeshan Hudson Pitts, a kindergarten teacher at Wrightwood and a member of the union’s bargaining team, said employee health care costs were still a major concern.

“It’s kind of really difficult for us to afford to take care of our families, when we’re still willing to take care of everybody else’s family too,” she said as roughly 40 picketers marched in front of Wrightwood’s campus.

Negotiations are set to continue Tuesday morning, CICS officials said.

CICS said it would keep the four campuses open and on normal schedules throughout any strike, but after-school and extracurricular activities would be canceled. Principals and nonunion staff would help keep operations running, including what the charter organization has described as “online learning, recreational and arts activities.”

“CICS is deeply disappointed that the Chicago Teachers Union has chosen to strike at four CICS campuses,” the charter organization said in a statement on Monday. “This strike will place a significant burden on the families of the four schools, reduce 2,200 students’ access to learning and it will cause long-term harm to the school community at our four campuses.”

Union officials, citing CICS financial records, have concluded the charter organization holds roughly $36 million in budget reserves that could help finance a contract agreement. CICS has contended its reserves are actually half that amount.

“We thought we would have a settlement last night,” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates told the Tribune on Tuesday morning. “We’re real clear in saying they made a choice last night to have picket lines this morning.”

“We are committed to remaining at the table to get a reasonable solution. We only ask that they send decision-makers and they get serious about completing a contract,” she said.

The educators are asking for an increase in salary, without sacrificing cuts to counselors, social workers or student programs. Teachers said management recently moved on salary increases, but at the expense of cuts to those areas.

The strike will not affect thousands of students who attend 10 other CICS campuses. The charter network’s campuses are operated by five independent “school management organizations” that use taxpayer dollars to finance their day-to-day operations.

LeeAndra Khan, CEO of Civitas Education, said Friday that both sides were still negotiating over the number of students who would be assigned to counselors and social workers.

Union leaders argue that CICS charter managers would pay for educator salary increases by reducing counselor and social worker staffing ratios, while contending CICS has ample money to pay for the union’s staffing demands.

Charter leaders, however, say they need to negotiate a financially sustainable deal.

Last year, the Chicago Teachers Union merged with a division of unionized charter educators and has since pressed for working conditions at the independently operated schools that are similar to those at traditional Chicago public schools.

Charter teachers work under contracts negotiated with each charter operator. They can bargain over issues that state law excludes from negotiations with teachers at traditional schools in Chicago. They also have broader flexibility to call strikes.

A strike by CICS teachers would mark the second time charter teachers have walked off the job in Chicago. Hundreds of educators at the Acero charter school network went on strike for four school days last year before settling a contract that secured higher pay and smaller class sizes.

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