Contract talks gear up, schools hold ‘practice’ strike votes

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As contract negotiations gear up between the Chicago Teachers Union and CPS, teachers say that working conditions such as class size, prep time, and professional development days could become critical points in contract talks.

At the same time, increasing pressure on teachers to raise test scores, coupled with teachers’ perceptions that city and district officials don’t respect them, has sparked practice strike votes at several schools.  But it’s not clear how many schools have held such votes, and the union’s not saying.

“It’s been very informal, and there has not been a lot of it,” said CTU spokesman Michael Harrington. “People have sent us emails saying, ‘Guess what, we took a vote today,’ or ‘We talked about it and we took a show of hands.’ ”

Jackson Potter, CTU staff coordinator, says the votes are because of “member initiative.”

“We’re not driving that; we’re not counting it,” he says.

If a real strike vote were to occur, it could only happen after months of negotiations, mediation, and an appearance before a fact-finding panel.  A strike would require support from 75 percent of the union’s membership—a provision of Senate Bill 7 that limited tenure and strike rights.

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said in response that “if true, these practice votes are disturbing and contradict the message the CTU delivered today about having an honest dialogue about what is in the best interests of students.”

Curie, Lane Tech and Kelly high schools are among those that have taken such votes, according to several union delegates. One delegate reported that about 15 schools took votes, all of which resulted in at least 90 percent of teachers supporting a strike. But whether the information is correct is unclear.

“I don’t think anybody wants to go on strike,” says Eric Wagner, a union delegate at Kelvyn Park. “How the board treats us, or deals with us, will dictate that. The ball is in the mayor and Brizard’s court.”

Even so, “some believe the board’s negotiating stance will be based on whether they think the union will win a strike vote,” says Jerry Skinner, also a delegate at Kelvyn Park.

CPS: Contract negotiations started in November

CTU officials called a news conference Friday to announce that they were beginning contract negotiations with CPS and submitting their first concrete proposals to the district. Previous meetings, union President Karen Lewis said, were just to establish ground rules.

However, CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll says the parties have met eight times since November. “We have exchanged different proposals and have had multiple discussions on issues that impact all parties,” Carroll said. “These meetings have not been about setting ground rules.”

Despite the union earlier saying it would release its demands, Lewis said she could not offer specifics.

She said she “absolutely” expects that teachers will get a raise in the next contract, but added, “We have not discussed economics.  That’s the last thing we’re talking about.”

For now, the union’s goals in the negotiations include many issues the district is not even obligated to discuss:  lowering class size, maintaining the current number of professional development days, and increasing the preparation time teachers have during the day.

 “We work in the Stone Age,” asserts Kennedy High School teacher and union delegate Zulma Ortiz. “Broken desks, no materials. Every pen, every [piece of] chalk, everything that I use, I have to purchase. If I want a historical film, I have to buy it.”

She says a lack of books and computers hampers her ability to teach and that working conditions – like classroom overcrowding, prescribed curricula, and problems with heating and air conditioning systems – are key issues on teachers’ minds.

“We are losing resources, classroom supplies, prep time,” says Skinner. “Teachers are getting less autonomy.  In a lot of schools, it’s set curriculum.”

Special education teachers, whose time is being eaten up by more paperwork, and teachers of non-core classes, who fear being left out as schools focus more on core subjects, are particularly concerned.

Lack of leadership stability is also a concern, says one union delegate. “In a lot of schools, the administration is high-turnover. From the neighborhood school perspective, stability is huge.”

Longer day, teacher evaluation will be lightning rods

The longer day and teacher evaluation – though technically separate from contract negotiations – are likely to be lightning rods for conflict between the CTU and CPS in coming months.

Several teachers contacted by Catalyst said they are skeptical that the district will allow enough of the extra time to be used for enrichment.

“It’s ultimately not open for negotiation. They’re going to impose whatever length of school day and year that they want,” one delegate said. “I’m going to be [at school] 10 hours a day anyway, whether it’s mandated or not. The most important thing is, how does it affect the students?”

As for evaluation, the new Performance Evaluation Reform Act mandates that student growth count for at least 25 percent of a teacher’s evaluation scores in at least 300 CPS schools starting in fall 2012.

State law mandates CPS to bargain with teachers for 90 days, but if impasse over the evaluations is reached, CPS can impose its last offer.

Wagner says one priority is making sure the evaluations are fair and don’t rely entirely on principal judgment. “That’s a huge amount of power, not only to get rid of someone but to make sure they never teach again,” he says. (Teachers can ultimately lose their license for poor performance.)

Lewis says the union has agreed to use a modified version of the Charlotte Danielson Framework for Teaching for the observation-based portion of evaluation scores.

A union fact sheet notes that the union “is planning a challenge” to its 2012 implementation and a public campaign against it. The union is asking CPS to seek a waiver exempting it from the first year of implementation, and is arguing it has the right to extend the 90-day negotiation period.

“We understand that the current system is a wreck, [but] it’s incredibly frustrating to have our professional lives dictated to us by legislators,” says one delegate. “I teach in Chicago because I want to. I choose not to go to the suburbs. And to have Chicago constantly and consistently carved out for different rules than the rest of the state is frustrating.”

Potter says the union has not decided yet whether to pursue a legal challenge.