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Inside the First Charter School Strike: ‘30k Is Not a Livable Wage in Chicago’

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“I have 32 fifth graders in my classroom, and that’s just not the optimal amount of people to be teaching at once,” said Martha Baumgarten, who teaches social studies and English language learners at the Acero charter network’s Carlos Fuentes Elementary School. “It’s a lot,” she emphasized. “Thirty-two different academic levels is a lot. Thirty-two different levels of English proficiency is a lot. It’s just too much to be able to serve my students as well as I could.”

On Tuesday morning, Baumgarten joined the nation’s first formal strike against a charter school operator. Complaining of low wages, overcrowded classes, and insufficient support services for bilingual and special education students, roughly 550 unionized educators employed by the Acero Schools charter network are walking picket lines after management failed to re-negotiate their contract with the Chicago Teachers Union by the December 4 deadline. Contract negotiations with Acero – which is one of Chicago’s largest charter school networks, serving more than 7,000 students – have been underway for six months. Baumgarten sits on the bargaining committee of United Educators for Justice (UEJ), which represents Acero educators within CTU, and she voted to approve a strike.

So did Andy Crooks, UEJ president and a special education paraprofessional, or trained teachers’ aide, for Acero schools. Crooks told New York that paraprofessionals start with base pay of $32,100. Seven percent of that sum is allocated for pensions, which leaves paraprofessionals with an actual base salary of under $30,000. Crooks himself makes slightly more, due partly to seniority, but he added, “$30,000 is not a livable wage in the city of Chicago.” As the New York Times reported, Acero CEO Richard Rodriguez makes around $260,000 per year to manage a network of 15 schools – a figure roughly equal to the salary earned by Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice K. Jackson, who is responsible for over 500 schools.

In a statement released Tuesday morning, the CTU cited low pay for paraprofessional staff as a principal sticking point in its negotiations with Acero, saying the charter operator’s management refused “to provide a penny more in compensation to paraprofessionals, their lowest wage workers.” They aren’t the only Acero workers being paid less than they’re due, according to CTU; Acero teachers earn, on average, $13,000 less than their peers in Chicago’s traditional public schools while also working around 20 percent more hours, the union says.

CTU said that a financial audit Acero provided to the union revealed that it pays $1 million less in salary costs than it did in 2017, and currently possesses unrestricted cash resources of $24 million. The Acero charter network disputed the union’s characterization of its position on paraprofessional raises and increased special education services and staffing; a spokeswoman said the network is still “working through what those final numbers will be” as part of its negotiations.

Acero attributes its fiscal situation to Chicago Public Schools releasing a budget at the end of fiscal year 2017 that would have cut funding for charters. However, the final budget ended up allocating more funding for charters, and that, combined with Acero’s internal spending cuts, left the charter network with a financial surplus of $24 million. “Acero created 40 new union positions and 17 school support positions after CPS increased funding,” said Acero’s spokesperson. Nevertheless, the union says Acero rejected its demands to increase educators’ pay, reduce class sizes, extend school lunch time to 40 minutes, and increase the availability of special education services.

Nor would the charter operator commit to a more formal implementation of sanctuary school policies, another key union........

© Daily Intelligencer