Middle school students at the United Neighborhood Association's Archer Heights campus attend a naturalization ceremony in 2010. [Catalyst file photo/courtesy of UNO] Credit: Elizabeth Rodriguez/UNO

Charter school teachers and staff at United Neighborhood Organization charter schools are preparing to vote on what some say could be one of the biggest labor contracts for a charter school network in the country.

The scandal-plagued UNO network, one of the largest charter networks in Chicago, and the union reached a tentative agreement late last month after dozens of negotiation sessions that started in May 2013. UNO agreed last March to allow teachers to form a union.

Charter school officials did not respond to requests for comment on the pending agreement, and union leaders declined to share details, as neither UNO’s board nor the teachers have yet voted on the deal. But educators’ priorities included the elimination of merit pay, shorter schooldays and a shorter calendar year.

The UNO Charter School Network’s Board of Directors will vote on the tentative agreement on Wednesday during a special meeting at the Roberto Clemente campus, according to an agenda posted at the organization’s main office. Meanwhile union members will begin voting on a school-by-school basis on March 17.

“We know this is something that has never been done before and we’re pretty pleased,” says Rob Heise, an English teacher at UNO’s  Garcia High School and a union delegate on the negotiating team. “My No. 1 personal goal was to create a place where teachers didn’t have to choose between having a family and being a teacher.”

A model for more charter unions

What makes this tentative agreement so unique is the number of schools and educators involved in a single labor contract involving a charter.

The UNO contract, if approved, would cover between 500 and 550 teachers and other employees – including information technology staff, office support, counselors, paraprofessionals and apprentices—at the 13 elementary schools and three high schools that make up the network, organizers say.

Charter school labor contracts are often negotiated on a school-by-school basis, not for all schools within a single network. In recent years, the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (Chicago ACTS), which falls under the umbrellas of the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), has negotiated contracts for about 300 teachers and staff at 11 of the city’s 126 charter schools.

The UNO contract would more than double those numbers.

“Everybody is going to be looking at the UNO contract as a model,” said Chicago ACTS President Brian Harris, who added that some of the key wins at other schools have included improved health care plans for families and employer contributions to teachers’ pension plans.

Many existing labor contracts at Chicago charter schools include no-strike agreements and tie teacher pay to student performance, although Harris says he now discourages members from agreeing to the merit pay clauses.

“One of the things our union has moved away from is merit pay agreements,” Harris says. “They’ve been a complete disaster so far. Everybody hates them.”

Unlike traditional public schools, the vast majority of charter schools are not unionized. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, just 12 percent of the country’s charter schools were unionized during the 2009-2010 school year, the last year during which the group collected data

Advocates for charter schools have long said that operating without a labor agreement allows for more innovation in curriculum development and the ability to offer more instructional hours than traditional public schools.

“One of the keys to running a successful charter school is the flexibility to structure the school, including teaching agreements, in a way that best serves the needs of the students,” wrote Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance, in an e-mail to Catalyst Chicago. “Sometimes this means offering students a little extra tutoring help or a slightly longer school day. Unfortunately, the agreements unions negotiate are often not flexible enough to address changing circumstances during a school year.”

UNO scandal bolstered union drive?

Across the country, charter school educators who do unionize often benefit from the help of traditional teachers unions, including the AFT and the National Education Association (NEA), which have bolstered their ranks with charter school employees.

“Teachers who come to us often went into a charter school because they wanted a voice and bigger say in their school, but without a union, that doesn’t become a reality,” says Jim Testerman, senior director for the NEA’s Center for Organizing. “And to attract and retain the best and the brightest, you need a good compensation package, making sure you have due process […] as well as a stable workforce.”

Charter schools tend to have higher teacher turnover than traditional public schools, which also means they spend less on salaries for more experienced teachers. For example, state records show that the average UNO teacher earns less than $53,000 per year, while teachers at traditional Chicago Public Schools earn more than $70,000 on average.

UNO union members credit two major factors for their ability to unify educators across the network: The support of traditional teachers unions, including the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the AFT, and the timing of a major corruption scandal involving former UNO CEO Juan Rangel.

CTU leaders, for example, offered informal advice and guidance to UNO teachers at the contract negotiating sessions and assigned an organizer to work with charter schools in the city.

Last year Rangel stepped down from his posts as head of both the charter school network, which he helped create in 1998, and its parent political organization, after a Chicago Sun-Times investigation uncovered a pattern of contract steering and cronyism at the privately run, but publicly financed charter school chain. The state has since pulled millions in grant money to UNO while the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating a 2011 bond deal that helped expand the network.

“When the s–t hit the fan with Juan, I don’t know if it created an opening for us to unionize,” Heise says. “But this probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

Melissa Sanchez is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at msanchez@chicagoreporter.com and follow her on Twitter at @msanchezMIA.

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