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Chicago charter teachers vow to strike as long as necessary

Teachers strike outside CICS Northtown Academy | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Teachers strike outside CICS Northtown Academy | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Classes ground to a halt at four Chicago International Charter School campuses on Tuesday as 175 unionized teachers and paraprofessionals kicked off the second charter teacher strike in the city this school year.

Teachers arrived before sunrise to picket outside CICS’ Northtown Academy, Ralph Ellison and ChicagoQuest high schools, as well as Wrightwood Elementary, before bringing the picket line to the charter network’s Loop headquarters in the afternoon.

“We’ll be on strike until our class sizes are smaller,” Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said as more than 100 members marched behind her at Adams and State.

“We’ll be on strike until we have special education resources. We’ll be on strike till they understand that social workers and counselors are necessary parts of our community inside our schools.”

Chicago Teachers Union members picket outside the headquarters of the Chicago International Charter School network downtown on Tuesday afternoon. | Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Chicago Teachers Union members picket outside the headquarters of the Chicago International Charter School network downtown on Tuesday afternoon. | Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

The work stoppage is the culmination of months of stalled contract talks between CICS educators represented by the Chicago Teachers Union and the network operated by Civitas Education Partners.

The educators are looking to bring their salaries in line with those of Chicago Public Schools teachers. The management firm says they’ve offered raises totaling 30 percent over four years as they seek a “financially sustainable” agreement. The firm also says it offered to cap class sizes at 29 students. The union is aiming for a cap of 28 at most.

Officials from Civitas — which has vowed to keep the four affected schools open — said just a tiny fraction of students showed up Tuesday morning: about 120 of the 2,200 kids impacted by the strike. Just one student showed up at Northtown, though management said picketers blocked some parents from getting into parking lots to drop students off.

“We have got a number of students in our schools who are housing insecure and food insecure,” Northtown school director Torry Bennett said of the network, which serves mostly African-American and Latino students from low-income homes. “This may be the only safe, warm place they have to stay all day.”

The union called that open-door policy a “dog whistle for soliciting scabs” and on Tuesday said they got a private substitute teaching firm to “back down” from contracting with the charter network to cross picket lines.

Civitas leaders said they don’t plan on contracting substitute teachers but did not rule out the possibility.

“Luckily we have the benefit of having teachers on the administrative staff who are ready to facilitate learning,” said Bennett, who is part of Civitas’ bargaining team. “We have juniors who are preparing for the SAT. These days they are missing are days they are not progressing academically.”

Bennett called Monday’s failed late-night talks to avert the strike “incredibly progressive and candid” and said the sides were close on terms of working conditions and teacher evaluations.

Talks continued into Tuesday night at CTU’s West Town headquarters. Bennett said management was willing to “work as long and late as necessary” to strike a deal.

Teachers have also hammered management over the firm’s alleged crying poor despite having $36 million in surplus public funds.

“CICS has hoarded money … that is not coming back into the schools,” Northtown science teacher Keith Willert said while rallying outside the Northwest Side high school.

Civitas says that number is closer to $18 million and barely meets the state’s fiscally advised level for an emergency reserve fund.

Union leaders didn’t dispute the salary offer but called the proposal “inadequate” and said the firm agreed to pay raises only on the condition of cutting counselors and nurses. Bennett said those positions “were never on the chopping block. We’re committed to providing those services.”

Ten more schools in the CICS network across the city are unaffected by the strike.

The strike is the third ever by charter teachers anywhere in the country, following Acero network teachers who went on strike for four days in December to lower class sizes and bring their pay up to scale with CPS teachers.

Charter teachers in California also joined the massive Los Angeles teachers’ strike last month.