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Charter school fights teacher organizing—and "public school" label



For the last several years, politicians around here—Mayor Emanuel included—have been enthusiastically championing charter schools as the next great thing in public education.

But if a north-side charter school gets its way, the pols might have to drop the "public" part of the appellation.

According to the operators of the Chicago Math and Science Academy, a school in Rogers Park, charter schools are not really public schools so much as "public charters."


"The important point is that we're public charters but we're not governmental," said Salim Ucan, the founding principal of CMSA.

It is, to be sure, a subtle distinction, which they've been advancing in a legal case that has forestalled a union-organizing effort by teachers.

Coincidentally, of course.

Before I get into the details, let me break for a refresher on this whole charter school thing. As you may recall from my last primer, charters are basically publicly financed schools with private school privileges. They can limit enrollment to any kid whose parent fills out an application, as opposed to regular neighborhood schools that have to admit everyone who walks through the doors. They reserve the right to toss out, for one reason or another, miscreants, malcontents, slow learners, low achievers, and assorted other knuckleheads (but enough about my high school career). These students then get sent down the street to the regular public school, which has no choice but to take them. And—last but certainly not least—charter schools can hire and fire teachers without worrying about contract niceties like due process.

In Chicago, creating more charters is what's known as school reform.

CMSA was welcomed to town eight years ago by 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore, who now rather sheepishly admits he didn't see things working out this way. "It's really quite sad," he said. "The school had done a lot of good work over the years."

It's an affiliate of an Ohio-based operation called Concept Schools, which was created by Taner Ertekin and Ehat Ercanli, a couple of Turkish-born educators who claimed to have produced extraordinary results with inner-city kids in Cleveland through a highly regimented curriculum heavy on math and science.

They opened CMSA in 2004 in the old St. Jerome's school on Morse Avenue. Five years later, with enrollment rising, the school wanted to move to a bigger site, the old Mega Mall building at 7212 N. Clark. The relocation required a zoning change.

Their consultant on that move was Christopher Hill, a former commissioner of the city's planning department under Mayor Daley. Their zoning lawyer was Gery Chico, Mayor Daley's former chief of staff and school board head (and the guy who came in second in February's mayoral election). Chico's wife, Sunny Chico, was on their board (she's not anymore). Moore's enthusiastic endorsement pretty much guaranteed they got their zoning change.

"I went and visited the school—it was a disciplined, nurturing environment," said Moore. "So I went to bat for them on getting the building and the zoning change. I thought they were good for education in my ward."

By 2010 the school's enrollment had grown to roughly 600 students and they employed about 35 teachers and nine staff. The school had developed a good reputation for educating working-class black and Hispanic kids from the neighborhood.

"Things were going well," Moore said. "And then things changed."

Part of the problem, he said, is that Ucan, the founding principal, was promoted to Concept's vice president. "Salim's a good communicator," Moore said. "After he left, it's gotten worse."

In particular, the school officials have not taken kindly to an effort by teachers to form a union.

"We felt our voices weren't being heard when it came to decision-making issues," said Jen Collins, a teacher at the school.

In addition, the teachers wanted salaries governed by a single school-wide contract as opposed to contracts with individual teachers. "You'd like a sense of what you expect to be making in ten years," said Nicole Bardoulas, another teacher in the school.

Under state law, if more than 50 percent of a public school's workforce signs union cards, the school is required to recognize the union as a bargaining agent and begin negotiating a contract, a process overseen by the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board.

And more than half of the CMSA teachers and staff did so in June 2010, asking that they be represented by the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff. But school officials didn't recognize the union.

Moore says he met with school officials and pleaded with them to recognize the union. "I listened to their side of the story," he said. "They told me they demanded a lot of teachers, like longer hours and making home visits. They said they were afraid they'd lose that if the union comes in. I told them, 'It's too late to keep the union out—they're already in. Work with your teachers.' But they wouldn't listen to me."

Instead, school officials fired a teacher, Rhonda Hartwell, who was advocating for the union.

The union filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the state on Hartwell's behalf. The school eventually settled the case, agreeing to pay Hartwell $40,000 while admitting no wrongdoing.

As for recognizing the union and negotiating a contract—well, that's where things got really tricky. The Illinois Education Labor Relations Board doesn't have jurisdiction in cases involving private or "nongovernmental" schools. Instead, labor issues at those schools fall under the authority of the National Labor Relations Board. And CMSA officials have argued that's the kind of school they are.

On July 29, 2010, they filed a request with the NLRB, asking them to assume jurisdiction in the matter on the grounds that they are a nongovernmental school.

To prove their point, they recited a long list of ways in which they claimed to have no connection with any supervising governmental body, even though in 2009 they signed a five-year charter contract with the Chicago Public Schools.

For instance, they argued that no government owns their "primary place of business," although they don't have to pay property taxes on the site since it's a school. They said nothing in their CPS charter agreement "addresses the pay and benefits" that "must be offered to CMSA employees." And even though CPS and the state pay them about $5.5 million a year to run their school, CPS has no say in how they spend it. "At most, CPS might correct typographical errors, or ask for clarifications if it has questions about certain numbers obtained in the budget report," according to the brief.

I'm sure incoming CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, a charter school advocate, will be happy to know about that.

In short, CMSA is a public school in that members of the general public get to attend (provided they fill out those application forms) and the school receives public money. Obviously, school officials have no problem with that.

But they say they're not really a public school because no government regulates them beyond that charter contract they signed with CPS.

I'm glad that's all cleared up.

The larger question is why CMSA even raised these issues in the first place instead of just recognizing the union and negotiating a contract with their teachers.

I tried to ask Ucan during our short phone conversation, but he said he was too busy to talk and directed me to the brief.

It was there I found a down-is-up and up-is-down section in which the school claims to be looking out for workers in states with weak labor laws. If the National Labor Relations Board doesn't take the case from the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, academy officials argue, the board will risk "disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of employees" from states "unlike Illinois" that "do not offer public sector bargaining laws that permit public employees to organize for purposes of collective bargaining."

In other words, they're actually looking out for the union rights of charter school teachers in union unfriendly states.

That's not how the CMSA teachers see this, of course. From their perspective, school officials are just trying to thwart their organizing efforts. They note that if the NLRB takes jurisdiction, the teachers will have to start collecting signatures from scratch. "It's already been almost a year since we told them we wanted to form a union," said one teacher who didn't want her name used in print. "The longer they drag this out, the more they think they can break our resolve."

In September an NLRB regional officer ruled against academy officials, saying the school is "accountable to CPS" and therefore "a political subdivision of the State of Illinois"—in other words, a public school. Academy officials appealed the ruling to the NLRB's national office. A decision is expected in the coming weeks.

For his part, Moore says he's disappointed with CMSA officials. On April 18, he sent them a letter urging them to stop their "scorched earth" labor practices.

They did not respond.

"I think they're making a tragic mistake here," Moore said. "They're spending a ton of money on lawyers fighting this thing. It's only going to lead to continued acrimony and demoralization. This is just not a way to run a school." 

E-mail Ben Joravsky at Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at Subscribe to their podcast at the iTunes Store.

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