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First charter school strike in nation eyes Day 2 as Acero teachers walk out

The historic Acero charter-schools strike is set to enter its second day Wednesday as teachers plan to hit picket lines at Acero’s campuses by 6:30 a.m., the teachers union said late Tuesday.

Then the Chicago Teachers Union will hold a rally at 10 a.m. just before the Chicago Board of Education’s monthly meeting at 42 W. Madison St. Union President Jesse Sharkey plans to discuss the strike during the Chicago Public Schools board meeting at 10:30 a.m.

Picket lines stretched two and a half blocks around Acero’s downtown Chicago headquarters at 209 W Jackson Blvd. on Tuesday as the nation’s first strike by charter-school educators canceled classes for thousands of students.

Acero teachers participating in negotiations said Tuesday that management has refused to make concessions on their key issues of pay, classroom conditions and sanctuary status for students.

“We intend to stay on strike until we receive justice for the people who go to our schools and the people who work at our schools,” Sharkey said. “Know this, we are not going to quit until we get what’s right.”

First-year teacher Amanda Bright said she left her home state of Ohio to work for Acero schools.

“I believed in their mission and vision that was explained to me, which is to help minority students who need it the most,” Bright said. “We are fighting for [our students], we are not getting paid, we don’t want to be here. I would love to be in my classroom right now teaching Algebra 2, but I’m not because we are making sure they are getting the opportunities they deserve.”

Teachers for the Acero charter schools network began picketing Tuesday morning, shutting down 15 government-funded campuses operated by the privately-managed Acero, which used to be known as the UNO Charter School Network. Acero teachers were bolstered by support from the Chicago Teachers Union and national labor leader Randi Weingarten.

About 550 teachers and paraprofessionals aren’t showing up for classes at one of the largest charter networks in Chicago, forcing Acero’s management to close its doors to the 7,500 students enrolled.

Acero leaders encouraged parents to keep their kids at home. The charter network also directed parents to Chicago Park District programs and some YMCA locations. A complete list of school-specific resources was posted on the network’s website.

Teachers and support staff started picketing at 6:30 a.m. at Acero’s VMC/Veterans Memorial Campus, 4248 W. 47th St., whose modern building, housing two schools, had gotten the previous charter management into financial trouble.

They’re also seeking sanctuary status for their schools where more than 90 percent of their students are Latino. They want Acero to invest into classrooms some of the millions of dollars in reserves revealed in an audit at what Sharkey called “literally the 11th hour and 59th minute.”

Joining the picket lines was Weingarten, president of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers, the CTU’s parent organization.

“What a union is, it is the vehicle which we help teachers secure the teacher-learning conditions they need and deserve that management won’t do,” Weingarten said. “I don’t know if the charter’s powers that be are pulling their strings, but it is certainly not on behalf of the students that once they show they are flushed with cash that they still refuse to make any proposals to reduce class sizes.”

Acero leader slams strike

Acero CEO Richard L. Rodriguez, who is not at the bargaining table, said Tuesday he’s “very disappointed that union leaders have put their anti-charter political agenda ahead of the interests of our students. The sad fact is that interests from outside our community are using our students and our schools as a means to advance their national anti-charter school platform.”

Raises offered to educators have amounted to 6 percent over four years, Acero officials said.

“It really boils down to CTU’s desire for a strike,” INCS spokeswoman Melissa Ramirez Cooper said. “The charter movement was founded on the principle that students need high-quality educational options and opportunities, and for teachers to have more autonomy in the classroom to effectively meet student needs. A strike would do nothing to further such opportunities. The strike only disrupts the lives of students and their families.”

As charters sprang up and expanded in Chicago, promising innovation and an ability to do better with smaller budgets, they did not employ union teachers on purpose, and as a movement were funded by anti-union organizations that believed teacher unions had too much power.

Acero was one of the first charter chains in Chicago to unionize under the CHIACTS union that since has moved under the umbrella of the CTU. And since May, its teachers have been asking Acero’s management team for enhanced special-education resources, sanctuary schools protections, reducing its 32-student class size and better pay, noting that Acero’s CEO is paid about the same $260,000 salary as CPS’ CEO, though he manages 15 schools and she more than 500.

Monday’s bargaining session went late into the night, past the midnight strike deadline. Negotiations picked up Tuesday morning at 10.

Teachers stress need for sanctuary status

Teachers on the picket lines Tuesday stressed the importance of sanctuary school protections for their students and families, a designation that bars federal agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement from entering campus without a court order, warrant or subpoena.

Such working conditions for staff are bargainable for charter schools, though not for Chicago Public Schools, union attorney Robert Bloch said.

Yecenia Iturve, a fourth-grade teacher at Acero Schools, said this is one of the key issues that forced her to walk off the job Tuesday. Many of her students have openly expressed their anxiety to her about their family’s immigration status.

“Being a sanctuary school means that our students, and their family, have a safe place to come to. Our students need to know this is a safe place for them.” Iturve said. “With the way national politics are going, I think it’s necessary for this kind of language and protection to be in our contracts.”

Educators with Acero Schools strike outside Veterans Memorial Charter School Campus. | Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

“A lot of students are fearful because they know where their parents come from, and they are seeing what is going on around the world,” Iturve said.

Martha Baumgarten, a fifth-grade teacher at Acero’s Carlos Fuentes Elementary School, said she understands why students are fearful.

“Many of [our students] are facing immigration issues either themselves or with their families,” Baumgarten said. “We are demanding that no information is shared with ICE, that no one is let inside our schools without a warrant, that resources are provided to our families and our staff to help them stay in the country.”

2 strikes for Rahm Emanuel

In 2016, when Acero was still known as the UNO Charter School Network, its teachers threatened to strike but reached an agreement in time. This week’s Acero walkout becomes the second teachers strike in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s tenure. The CTU walked out at CPS for seven days in 2012, demanding more pay for Emanuel’s signature longer school day and year.

“This strike is about trying to get the teaching conditions our kids need, the safety the kids deserve — particularly given the climate we live in — and fair pay for educators,” Weingarten said Tuesday.

Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South Side and West Side.

READ MORE

• UNO’s secret spending spree, March 26, 2016