Teachers at the Chicago International Charter Schools' (CICS) ChicagoQuest campus, who are organizing to form a union, held their own version of a school board meeting Monday night to demand accountability from the CICS board of directors and school management.
“We are trying really hard right now to be in contact with the [CICS] board to work together for improvements for our school and our network, and they’re shutting us out,” said Alex Krueger, a 7th grade teacher at ChicagoQuest, a “game-like learning” junior high school located on the city's Near North side.
The CICS board holds its monthly meetings downtown at 3:30 p.m.* on weekdays, making it difficult for parents and teachers to attend, the ChicagoQuest staffers said. Teachers had previously asked the board to change the time and location of its monthly meetings to accommodate the schedules of staff members and parents, but their request was denied.
Stacy Beardsley, CEO of the educational management organization Civitas Schools, which manages ChicagoQuest and is a wholly owned subsidiary of CICS, initially agreed to allow space at the charter school for the teacher-organized board meeting, but she later backed out on her promise, teachers said. Last week, Beardsley told teachers that CICS board members, despite being invited, would not be attending the meeting, and therefore the school was off limits for a meeting space, Krueger said.
But that did not stop the ChicagoQuest educators, who held their meeting outside of ChicagoQuest's building, located at 1443 N. Ogden Ave., before moving the event inside at the nearby Seward Park community center. About 50 staffers from ChicagoQuest, other CICS campuses as well as their supporters attended the meeting.
"We are here and ready to honor the commitment outlined by the CICS board, which is to prioritize feedback, transparency and best practices in making the decisions that concern our school, and subsequently our students," 9th grade ChicagoQuest teacher Nancy Nassr told the crowd. "We are here to ask for clarity around our systems and procedures concerning the disciplining of our students and the evaluations of our teachers. We are here to lend our voices and represent all of the stakeholders needed to make decisions in the best interests of our students."
Nassr noted that in "no other profession would you have a board of directors comprised of individuals who are not themselves members of that profession."
"We would never go to a mechanic to seek medical advice or to run a hospital, and yet, our board, comprised primarily of lawyers and business owners, make decisions concerning the policies and procedures of 17 schools, serving thousands of students across the city of Chicago, without the much needed voice of those individuals most connected to the work: teachers."
ChicagoQuest staffers have raised concerns to their employer about the school's lack of a public and consistent teacher evaluation process.
"I have had one teacher evaluation this year, and it was in March, so I’m still confused about how they’re going to measure my growth as a teacher during this school year," Krueger told Progress Illinois. "If they were to make hiring or firing decisions about me, I have no idea what that’s based on. We’ve requested that information on many occasions ... and so far they’ve ignored addressing it to our staff."
Beardsley did not return Progress Illinois' request for comment by deadline.* A representative from both CICS and ChicagoQuest could not be reached for comment.
Teachers also maintain that ChicagoQuest does not have a fair student discipline system, noting that the CICS board has decision-making authority when it comes to expulsions at the school. Krueger said two of her 7th grade students were expelled last month, and she has yet to receive written communication from school management about the reason behind the disciplinary actions.
“We wanted to advocate for those students, and we don’t know how that decision was made," she said. "It was made by the CICS board, but teachers were not brought into that decision, and I don’t know how parents were brought in.”
School discipline practices and the teacher evaluation process are just some reasons why the faculty at ChicagoQuest want to unionize under the umbrella of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff Local 4343 (Chicago ACTS), an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT).
Chicago ACTS was founded in 2009 when educators at three other CICS campuses — Ellison, Northtown Academy and Wrightwood — formed the first charter school teacher union in Chicago. Although charter schools are mostly taxpayer financed, its teachers and staff are not part of the Chicago Teachers Union.
The majority of ChicagoQuest teachers and staff publicly announced their intent to form a union back in January. At the time, faculty members demanded that ChicagoQuest, Civitas and CICS voluntarily recognize their union and bargain under the existing terms of the Civitas union contract, with ChicagoQuest specific addenda, but that has not happened.
ChicagoQuest faculty have been in 17 negotiation conversations with Beardsley over the past four months about an agreement for union recognition and the terms for negotiating their contract.
"We had an agreement that was pretty much ready to go," Krueger said. "We had five drafts ... We had compromised on all of our original three demands ... [but] she would not compromise on any of our demands."
After talks broke down last week, both sides filed a petition for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) unionization election. Going forward, if the faculty and the employer cannot agree on who is eligible to vote in the election, the NLRB will have to make that decision based on evidence presented at a hearing, explained Carlos Fernandez with Chicago ACTS.
"That’s one of the things we're trying to avoid," Fernandez said of an NLRB hearing. "Once any disputes over any positions (are) resolved, then the NLRB sets an election date. We hope it will be as soon as possible. It’s sometimes as little as two weeks, but again, the employer has options to extend the process by raising new issues, so we’re hoping that we avoid that."
Krueger called it "really unfortunate" that the two sides were not able to reach an agreement over recent months.
"We could have filed for the NLRB election on our own like this four months ago, and we could have been four months farther along in the process," she said. "It feels like (Beardsley) just strung us along, strung us along, and then maybe didn’t have intentions of working together."
Meeting attendee Nick Limbeck, a 2nd grade teacher at the Chicago Public Schools' Gallistel Elementary Language Academy, located in the city's East Side neighborhood, said he supports the ChicagoQuest teachers in their push to form a union.
"These folks here working at ChicagoQuest are staking out new grounds on their own and putting their necks out there for the cause of the union movement and for education justice," he told Progress Illinois. "Without the protection of a contract, they can be victim of intimidation by their employer ... and in the face of all that pressure, and when most workers these days feel like they’re all by themselves out there and have to just toe their bosses’ line, these teachers are courageously coming together and are standing up for their right to a union."
*UPDATE (10:21 a.m.): In an interview with Progress Illinois, Civitas CEO Stacy Beardsley explained that CICS board members have offered to meet with faculty members individually if they are not able to make it to the monthly meetings. She also noted that teachers have attended the monthly CICS board meetings, and that board members have adjusted the public comment time to better accommodate the schedules of parents and staff members.
Meanwhile, the school's teacher evaluation process was shared with staff in September, Beardsley said. She explained, however, that "we do need to make that process clearer with teachers" and look at how to improve it for next year. Beardsley said ChicagoQuest faculty issued a set of questions before spring break regarding evaluations, adding that the administration plans to respond next week.
Regarding school discipline, Beardsley noted that ChicagoQuest has a clear discipline policy that is outlined in the school handbook, which is public. The expulsion process is consistent across CICS schools, she added, and teacher voices are included in the discussion in a variety of ways. The school has a student expulsion hearing process, during which a hearing officer takes notes and reviews testimony and documents provided by teachers and parents. When making its recommendation to the board about an expulsion, the hearing officer forwards all the "school voice input" to the board, Beardsley said.
On the faculty's unionization efforts, Beardsley said "both sides compromised considerably," but were ultimately unable to come to a final agreement. It is the school management's "hope to expedite the election," Beardsley said. She acknowledged that the negotiation process “has been challenging,” but said school leadership is “hopeful that despite the frustration, we can get to a positive place and move forward.”