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CICS teacher and bargaining committee co-chair Jen Conant discusses the pending CICS strike at a press conference on Jan. 17, 2019.

When I was a first-year teacher at Chicago International Charter Schools’ (CICS) Northtown High School campus, I had a student turn to me one day and ask, “Will you leave like all the other teachers?”

I was shocked. This is not a normal question for a student to ask a teacher. But this student had seen teacher after teacher leave each year. Unfortunately, this kind of teacher turnover is par for the course at CICS schools, which are managed by Civitas Education Partners, a wholly owned subsidiary of CICS.

Teacher retention is one of the reasons I and my colleagues at four CICS campuses voted to strike on Feb. 5 if we have not reached an agreement with management. Our employer underpays its teachers and staff, so schools can usually only retain staff for a few years. This means our students’ education suffers because curriculum and classroom expectations are ever-changing. These are not the kinds of schools our students deserve. They deserve great, dedicated teachers and staff who should not have to choose between serving their students or providing for their own families.

CTU started negotiations with management on May 23, 2019, but as of press time, there has not been enough progress on key demands, including fair pay and benefits, maternity leave, class size, school safety and evaluation procedures. That’s why we announced the strike date.

We are fighting a system with multiple layers of management and staff, each taking a cut of the money that should be going into our schools. Nearly 30 percent of every dollar meant for students is spent on management fees. CICS has a $36 million surplus, yet our schools are starved of the resources students need.

We are fighting an employer who devalues our paraprofessional sisters and brothers and refuses to hear their collective voice. After months of organizing, our paraprofessionals demanded union recognition as part of the Chicago Teachers Union on October 22. Management refused and continued to block their representation until mid-January. As we were preparing an election, CICS agreed to recognize our paraprofessionals as CTU members.

Now we can finally begin to work on contract language that fairly compensates these vital school employees and provides fair working conditions for the incredibly important work they do.

Charter teachers in general should not be treated as disposable or as second-class educators. Charter operators like CICS receive more funding per student than district-run schools, but our pay and benefits lag behind our peers in CPS. We deserve to be paid and treated as professionals so we can retain great staff and provide our students a great education.

As we move toward a potential strike, it’s important for all CTU members to know we are fighting for the same things at CICS schools that we are fighting for at district-run schools and other charter networks. We are all working to improve the learning conditions of our students and the working conditions of our staff.

We see this as a collective fight across Chicago to improve our schools. Members at Acero led the way in December. CICS may be next and other unionized charter networks may follow this spring as negotiations at several charter operators heat up.

If we proud CTU members at CICS end up on the picket lines, we hope our CTU sisters and brothers will join us to defend the youth we all serve. This is a collective fight for the schools all Chicago students deserve.

Jen Conant is a math teacher at the CICS Northtown campus and co-chairs the CTU bargaining committee at CICS.

This article appears in the January 2019 issue of the Chicago Union Teacher.