Interview with charter leaders Jen Conant and Caroline Rutherford
In 2018, CTU launched the first charter strike in the nation. A few months later, the union embarked on the first ever multi-charter strike. Now, CTU’s Charter division is embarking on another groundbreaking strategy to win the schools our students deserve. The division has launched a coordinated campaign, negotiating contracts at 35 schools in 13 different charter networks simultaneously — and seeking to win uniform gains for students and their educators across the board.
CTU’s charter division, CTU-ACTS, is made up of members from those 35 different schools. For each charter operator or charter network, CTU has a union council. And each council has its own council chair, officers, and delegates.
The union councils focus on issues specific to the charter school(s) run by their specific charter operator. The council chairs and delegates at the 13 different operators also make up the Governing Board of CTU’s charter division. The Governing Board and the charter division as a whole are led by the CTU-ACTS Chair, Vice Chair, Secretary, and Trustee. These officers focus on charter division-wide issues, campaigns, and coordinating negotiations across employers.
Jen Conant is the new CTU-ACTS division chair and Caroline Rutherford is Vice Chair. CUT recently interviewed the two union leaders to introduce them to our membership and get their thoughts on this fall’s coordinated contract campaign.
CUT: Tell us a little about yourselves?
Jen: I’m a high school math teacher. When I moved to Chicago in 2012, I got a job at CICS Northtown Academy and have been there ever since! Northtown is an extremely diverse school, which I love. While the majority of students are Latinx, there are over 40 different languages spoken at our school. This is year 11 for me at CICS Northtown and in Chicago.
Before moving to Chicago, I lived in Minneapolis, Madison, and grew up outside of Washington, DC. So, I’ve moved around a bit, but Chicago is home now. I’ve been at Northtown for a decade because I love my students and my colleagues. I became a union leader years ago because I wanted my school to be the best place it could be for both our students and our staff and because I wanted that for all of the schools in our city.
Caroline: I’m a Visual Arts teacher at Acero Marquez. I teach K-8 students. This is my 13th year teaching at Marquez. I moved to Chicago in 2006 and got my Masters in Art Education at Columbia College. I was hired at Marquez in 2010 — back then it was the UNO Charter School network. My school is located on 47th Street near Kedzie, in the Brighton Park neighborhood, where over 97 percent of our students are Latinx.
I grew up in northern Michigan in a very small, white, conservative town and I left the minute I graduated from high school. My mother brought me to Chicago when I was 12 years old and I knew, right then, that I wanted to live here. I became involved in union leadership in 2014, starting as my school’s delegate. In 2016, I joined the bargaining team and loved the work. I was elected Vice President of Chicago ACTS Local 4343 in 2016 and when we merged with CTU Local 1 in 2017, I became the Vice Chair of the CTU-ACTs Division.
CUT: What are your responsibilities as chair and vice chair of the division?
Jen: As Chair of CTU-ACTS, I work to bring all of our charter leaders together to work on contract negotiations and contract proposals, strategy around bargaining, and planning collective actions. The other charter division officers and I lead trainings and work to ensure that all of our leaders, delegates, and members in schools are getting the support they need. I also love getting to attend union meetings at our charter schools across the city, where I hear directly from members what they need. Finally, I serve on CTU’s Executive Board, where I contribute to leading the union as a whole.
Before becoming chair of the charter division, I was chair of the CICS council. In that role I helped lead contract negotiations, wrote grievances, ensured members’ rights were protected and that they were paid properly, heard members’ concerns, and helped support delegates in our CICS schools. As chair of the charter division, I’m still doing a lot of that work but am now helping all of our charter leaders.
Caroline: I have been in this role, vice chair of CTU-ACTS, for six years now. I was elected to be the chair of my council, which is 15 Acero schools, in 2019. I fill both positions and teach half time at Marquez Elementary. Just like in district-run schools, these last two and half years have been a series of constant negotiations around COVID safety. We have bargained five different agreements since March 2020!
Much of my time is spent talking to members and leaders about how they can solve issues at their schools, have a stronger voice in decision making, improve their working conditions and enforce their contracts. Leading into this contract campaign, Jen and I have spent a considerable amount of time meeting with folks about the improvements they need to better support their students, our staff, and our city.
CUT: What are some of the biggest challenges facing our charter members?
Jen: The issues and challenges facing our charter members are the same as our district members — our schools are stretched thin from the pandemic and from being underfunded. We need more special education teachers and paraprofessionals and more English language teachers — both so we can serve students well and so that we can reduce the workload on our staff.
We also need additional staff to help with academic intervention for students who have fallen behind. We have a lot of students who need emotional support because many have experienced loss and trauma in their communities during the pandemic. So, we need additional social-emotional training and supports, including additional counselors and social workers.
Charter schools are notorious for underpaying educators and staff. We also know that with inflation, paychecks don’t stretch as far as they used to. All educators, whether you’re in a charter school or a district school, deserve to be compensated fairly for the important and critical work that we do. Similarly, our staff deserve better benefits and leave provisions. We also want to improve working conditions and increase the say that our members have in how our schools run. Our goal is to make our work more sustainable for the long-term.
Caroline: I led 10 school union meetings in the first two days of school this year and spoke with hundreds of members. Our biggest challenges in the charters and in the district are getting the full support our students deserve. We need to increase the amount of social-emotional and academic support for our students and provide more one-on-one or small group time with adults. We need social workers, counselors, nurses, academic and behavior interventionists, special education teachers and paraprofessionals, bilingual teachers, and classroom aides.
People are leaving the education system because these jobs are not sustainable. People want a career where they can raise a family, buy a house, and earn a living wage. Our charter bosses created a “model” that burns teachers out in a few years and pays them very little. This “model” is a disservice to our students and to our educators.
CUT: How do you hope the contract campaign will address those issues?
Jen: In our negotiations, we are making demands around staffing, compensation, benefits, working conditions, health, safety, and more. Over the course of our coordinated contract campaign, we hope to shine a light on what’s needed to serve our school communities better and win contract language that helps us tackle those issues.
Caroline: Our contract campaign is focusing on Supportive, Safe and Sustainable Schools. That’s our mantra. We want to build contracts that improve schools post-pandemic, not just for our charters, but for the city of Chicago. That means increased staffing to support our students, creating safe environments where students get social-emotional support, and providing a sustainable career that educators can thrive in for many years.
CUT: Explain what you mean by a “coordinated contract campaign.”
Jen: We’re negotiating contracts at all 35 of our charter schools, 13 charter networks in all. That’s 13 different bargaining teams. But we’re proposing the same language for most contract articles at all of our negotiating tables. Our bargaining teams at all of the charter networks we represent are reviewing contract proposals, making suggestions, and coming to collective decisions. We’re coordinating because we want to improve working conditions and our students’ learning conditions across the city, not just at one school or network.
As negotiations continue, we will likely plan collective actions at specific charters, in response to individual employers’ proposals, AND across the charter space and all of CTU as we fight for the same things everywhere.
Caroline: We are striving to create industry standards for our whole city. We know that we are stronger when we stick together so we are determined to not let the 13 different charter operators divide us.
CUT: Discuss what you see as the strengths of our charter members.
Jen: Charter members are just like our district members: caring educators, teachers, clinicians, paraprofessionals, and support staff who want the best for our students, our schools, and our own families. And just like our colleagues in CPS, we’re willing to fight for what we believe in! In our 2018-2019 contract campaign, nearly all of our charter councils took strike authorization votes and, in historic moves, several went on strike, waging the first charter strikes in the nation. Our longest strike that year was 13 days.
But I want to be clear, we actually don’t believe this contract campaign is unique to members in charter schools. Our negotiations in the charter space are actually the kickoff to a CTU-wide contract campaign, as we seek to improve our schools and our contracts across the city, including in CPS district-run schools.
CUT: How will members plug into the campaign?
Jen: They should be hearing from Contract Action Team members, bargaining team members, delegates, and council leaders about how negotiations are proceeding and actions we need to take to put pressure on our employers. We can make eloquent arguments at the negotiating table, but what really makes the difference is members’ willingness to take action. We have to show our bosses we’re united and that we mean business!
Caroline: We started the school year with campus-based union meetings at every school to inform our members about the state of negotiations, get feedback on our campaign and empower them to take action.
CUT: What are your long-term hopes/vision for charter schools in Chicago, their educators and their union?
Jen: We want to raise standards across the charter industry so that every student is receiving the support they need to succeed and so that our members can work in their schools long-term. We want all CTU members, in charter schools and district-run schools, to feel united and be part of the same struggle — because we are always stronger together.