Take 5: Union vote at Urban Prep, Noble decision delayed, charter renewal revamp

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Teachers from Urban Prep and North Lawndale College Prep speak at a press conference  about union organizing in February 2015.

Melissa Sanchez

Teachers from Urban Prep and North Lawndale College Prep speak at a press conference about union organizing in February 2015.

Just over 100 educators at Urban Prep Academies’ three campuses will vote next Wednesday on whether to unionize and join the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff. The secret-ballot election — which takes place under National Labor Relations rules — comes more than three months after teachers announced a union drive at both Urban Prep and North Lawndale College Prep, two of the city’s longest-running and most respected charter school networks.

David Woo, an outspoken teacher at Urban Prep’s Englewood campus, says he was disappointed administrators did not agree to recognize the union through a “card check” — which would count how many employees signed union cards — or to remain neutral during a formal election process. “I genuinely thought they would take a bold step and do something progressive to support unions in charter schools,” said Woo.

Urban Prep Chief Operating Officer Evan Lewis declined to comment before next week’s vote. But administrators at the campuses have been talking about unionization to staff during mandatory meetings that, according to some teachers, have painted unions in a negative light and helped create a culture of fear. Noel Perez-White, a teacher at the Bronzeville campus, says some educators are especially nervous because they have not yet been told whether they’ll be invited to return to Urban Prep next fall.

Educators at North Lawndale College Prep remain in conversations with administrators about unionization and have not set a date for a vote.

2. Deferred vote on Noble … In response to an outpouring of criticism from principals, elected officials and community activists, the CPS Board of Education decided not to vote Wednesday on a proposal to relocate the Noble Academy to the Uptown neighborhood.

Board President David Vitale said the decision to pull Noble’s proposal – along with two others related to contract and charter schools – was in direct response to the public outcry.

“We do listen here at the board to the community input, whether it’s from students, families, union members, educators, elected officials who provide feedback on the location and other issues related to the charter schools,” he said. “We’ve taken [these three items] off the agenda so we can actually learn more and understand better the reasons that people are not supporting these actions.”

Board members did, however, vote to approve another controversial proposal from Rowe Charter Elementary to expand and relocate part of its operations into the annex of the closed Peabody Elementary School in the West Town neighborhood. The move was approved despite promises made by Barbara Byrd-Bennett — who is now on leave pending a federal investigation — to keep charters out of closed schools.

Just four voting board members were present at Wednesday’s meeting: Vitale, Mahalia Hines, Deborah Quazzo and Carlos Azcoitia. Board member and Interim CEO Jesse Ruiz did not vote on the items.

3. New charter renewal process … Andrew Broy, executive director of the Illinois Charter School Network, says he’s troubled by the fact Noble Academy is still in limbo about where it might open next fall. Setting an earlier timeline is one issue he’d like to tackle as part of a project to codify the process for charter renewals by October, when the Board will consider new charter proposals.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Broy and CPS Innovation and Incubation chief Jack Elsey said they’ll spend the summer crafting a new set of standards based on the district’s School Quality Rating Policy (SQRP) to determine whether charter schools are on track for renewal.

Elsey said the current policy doesn’t provide enough guidance to charter school leaders about whether they’re on the right track or what they need to do to assure a renewal. The district currently keeps a “watch list” of charter schools that could be shut down if they earn the lowest possible rating under the SQRP two years in a row.

Under a new policy, high-performing charter schools might have their renewals fast tracked, says Broy. “Having a one-size-fits-all approach is too far too burdensome for schools that are, by every measure, great,” he says.

Apart from INCS, the district is also working with private donors — including New Schools for Chicago — on developing the new standards. You may remember that New Schools — a big donor for Noble, KIPP and LEARN charter schools, according to its 2013 tax records — was formerly known as the Renaissance Schools Fund and came out of former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s plan to open 100 new schools in Chicago.

4. Other deferred items … Also on Wednesday, CPS also pulled a recommendation for a one-year renewal of the Joshua Johnston Fine Arts and Design Charter School, an alternative school in the Englewood neighborhood.

Principal Pa Joof, who had complained to Catalyst last week about the metrics used to rate the school, said he is optimistic the district will return with a recommendation for a longer renewal. “I don’t see any reason they’d have to be very punitive,” he said. “We know what we’re doing, but they come to us with these difficult and impossible measurements.”

The third deferred proposal was a three-year extension of the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL)’s contract to “turn around” Dulles Elementary in the South Side. It’s one of the worst-performing schools in AUSL’s portfolio, earning the lowest-possible rating under the SQRP last fall.

CPS had originally given AUSL a five-year contract in 2009 to “turn around” the school, and last year extended the contract for a single year.

5. Ed czar’s salary … The Chicago Sun-Times reports that Gov. Bruce Rauner’s education czar, Beth Purvis, is getting paid out of the agency that funds autism and epilepsy services. Purvis’ already controversial $250,000 annual salary is drawing new criticism now that it’s known the beleaguered Department of Human Services is footing the bill.

Rep. Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat who chairs the Appropriations-Human Services Committee, called it “financial trickery [ …] This is a huge salary, especially when on Good Friday you’re cutting autism and epilepsy, and you’re paying someone at the same time a quarter of a million bucks?”

The governor’s office had initially “sliced $26 million in services including for autism, epilepsy and burials for the indigent” and caused some shut-downs until the monies were later restored in April.

One last point … about Wednesday’s board meeting. Many of us in the audience were stunned when Ruiz asked CPS staff to publicly outline a variety of measures and contracts that board members would be voting on. That’s an unusual move — but one that helps bring much-needed transparency to the board. Hopefully Ruiz and the next CEO keep this up.


  • BDH

    Urban Prep management used Wednesday’s PD for yet another anti-union captive audience meeting (#3). Scaring teachers out of unionizing is apparently what Tim King and Lionel Allen consider to be appropriate professional development.

  • Concerned Parent

    How do Tim King’s students get to a board meeting during the day and away from school. So CPS – then CTU should be able to use PD days for CTU activity!