CPS could face another union at the bargaining table if principals get law changed

A bill allowing Chicago Public Schools principals to unionize passed an Illinois House committee Wednesday.

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President of Chicago Principals and Administrators Association Troy LaRaviere speaks at a Board of Education meeting at CPS headquarters in 2017.

President of Chicago Principals and Administrators Association Troy LaRaviere speaks at a CPS Board of Education meeting.

Sun-Times files

A bill that would allow Chicago Public Schools principals to unionize is advancing in Springfield, though obstacles remain a year after a similar effort stalled.

Chicago principals have long complained they don’t have a voice in their working conditions or district policies, but a school administrators union has never existed in the city because state law hasn’t allowed one.

House Bill 5107 would change that, amending the Illinois School Code and the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act to make principals, who are supervisors, eligible for collective bargaining exclusively in Chicago.

Illinois distinguishes a supervisor from a higher-level manager — and the bill would define a manager for these purposes as someone with a “significant role in the negotiation of collective bargaining agreements or who formulates and determines employer-wide management policies and practices.”

The bill, sponsored by State Rep. William Davis, D-Harvey, passed the House Labor and Commerce Committee by an 18-9 vote Wednesday to advance to the full House. A similar bill passed the House last year and made it out of a Senate committee but wasn’t called for a vote before the full Senate.

Among the changes from last year’s bill is the inclusion of a no-strike clause preventing principals from pursuing work stoppages. That may help appease concerns of more labor strife after a teachers strike and two near-strikes the past three years in a tense relationship between the school district and the Chicago Teachers Union. Davis said in the committee hearing Wednesday the clause should “provide comfort that the principals are interested in collaboration, not conflict.”

The Chicago Principals and Administrators Association is the current representative body for CPS principals and assistant principals. Membership is voluntary — the organization says about 80% of school administrators are members — and the group doesn’t have a collective bargaining agreement.

Troy LaRaviere, president of CPAA and a top advocate for the bill over the past couple years, said Wednesday that principals certainly are supervisors with the ability to structure their individual schools and hire and fire teachers, but they aren’t managers because they don’t set district-wide policies.

“If principals are at the table then we could see negative unintended consequences of policies a mile away,” said LaRaviere, who has been highly critical of the district in the past.

Issues such as staffing, building conditions and cleaning, as well as pay and benefits, would be on the table. LaRaviere also said principals generally keep from speaking publicly about problems in their schools out of fear of retribution, but this bill could help administrators advocate for their communities with a bit more comfort. Last surveyed in late 2019, before the pandemic, administrators overwhelmingly supported unionizing, he said. If the bill passes, a simple majority of the about 1,110 principals and assistant principals eligible for a union would need to vote to create one.

The CPAA is affiliated with the American Federation of School Administrators, a parent union that represents principals and administrators across the country. AFSA spokesman Scott Treibitz said Chicago is one of the only major cities that doesn’t have a principals union. New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, D.C., Oakland and San Diego are among the cities where principals have organized.

“A lot of the organizing that has gone on over the past couple years is being generated because of frustration” by the direction superintendents have taken districts, Treibitz said. “The problem in Chicago is principals have no voice. They’re given mandates and policy changes and told to implement them when they know it’s not what’s best for their schools.”

CPS spokeswoman Mary Fergus said the district values school leaders but does “not agree that they should be classified as non-managerial employees.

“Our principals are instructional and operational leaders who run our schools and help inform the best practices and policies to support our more than 330,000 students and more than 40,000 staff members,” she said. “Among myriad responsibilities, principals create school employment policies, hire and evaluate staff, develop and implement practices unique to each school, and generally serve as the central authority and communication figure for staff, students and families.”

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