This story has been updated to clarify that the parent meeting at Gage Park High is on Monday, June 25.
The phone rings. It is CPS CEO Jean Claude Brizard’s voice, a voice that is no stranger to Chicago parents. This time, however, Brizard is not reminding parents about an upcoming vacation day or the release of test scores.
Instead he is asking parents if they would care to attend a meeting about collective bargaining over the teacher’s contract—something that is usually considered internal school board business.
Unlike years past and unlike most other teacher contract negotiation processes across the nation, both parties are taking pains to present their positions to the public. Under new leadership, contract negotiations have now become almost a spectator sport, with positions traded in public and both sides trying to rally parents and the public to their side.
The leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union took the first steps by aggressively organizing community groups. From the outset, Karen Lewis made clear that the CTU would be getting into the community organizing business.
For the last few months, outside groups did the district’s bidding. Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform, national groups with local chapters, held town hall meetings, circulated online petitions and did robo calls, providing the public their take on why teachers should not vote to authorize a strike.
But now that teachers overwhelmingly approved the strike authorization, district leadership decided to reach out to the public. Parents received robo calls on Thursday night from Brizard and the district has already scheduled the first informational meeting. It will take place on Monday, June 25 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Gage Park High School on the southwest side.
(The event is being co-sponsored by the Employment Resources and Childcare Network. It is unclear what this organization’s purpose is or what its role is in partnering. It has received $800 from CPS for each of the past two years, according to the CPS procurement website. It is registered with the secretary of state as a not-for-profit, but is not registered in the Illinois Attorney General’s charity trust database.)
Michael Bakalis, president and CEO of the charter-operator American Quality Schools, has been involved in Chicago’s education scene for decades and says that never before has the union or the school board taken such pains to organize and go directly to the people.
Bakalis says that this year’s contract negotiations are a stark contrast from those in the 1980s—a decade that saw five strikes.
Bakalis says the union has always presented its case to the public via the news media, but didn’t spend as much time outside to influence opinion.
As for the board, he says he doesn’t recall it ever “taking a counter offensive.”
Yet Bakalis says the school board is not as well equipped to rally the public. The teachers have thousands of members–22,000 of them voted to authorize the strike—who can get out and sell their position to people.
“The school board does not have the ground forces,” he says. “I hang up on robo calls so I don’t think it will help.”
Bakalis says the mayor could perhaps get some “feet on the ground,” if that is what he chose to do.
Bakalis says the situation is aggravated by the state’s desperate financial condition.
Teachers may have a legitimate gripe about not being offered a substantial salary increase while being asked to work longer, he says. However, he doesn’t see how the district can come up with much more money. “It is a tough situation,” he says.
Wendy Katten, of the parent group Raise Your Hand, says that parents are confused, and many are skeptical of information that is coming from the district.
“It’s become so politicized,” Katten says. “I don’t feel like it’s going to be a true discussion. … What we have is so toxic, and I think some of the messaging has made it worse.”
She adds: “If I was a consultant, I would tell the city to take a few days and think about what happened instead of spinning things.”
Some parent groups say that it is inappropriate, while others say that it is a savvy move.
Stand for Children Chicago Director Juan José González praised the move as a departure from the district’s usual mode of communication – flyers in children’s backpacks.
“That’s a great idea – instead of having an event and who knows who’s going to show up, having something that’s more targeted and efficient, [aimed toward] those parents that are seeking information,” he said.
González says he thinks CPS should be informing parents about the status of the negotiations as well as what alternatives – like the Park District or opening school buildings to children with other adults present – might be offered in the event of a strike.
“Ultimately, no one wants a strike, and everyone is going to work hard to not achieve a strike, parents want to know, what can I do?” he says. His organization is having its own town halls for parents on Thursday June 21 and Monday June 25 (separate from the CPS event the same night.)
Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education and a stalwart critic of the district, says she feels it is wrong for officials to try to force their position on parents.
“They should be doing their business of negotiating with the teachers, and let the parents decide for themselves what to think about it,” she says.
Chicago Public School officials did not respond to questions about the robo calls or informational meetings.