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As Chicago dodges one strike, another looms at UCSN charters

Just as Chicago averted one teachers strike that had the city on edge, another one that could disrupt the lives of 8,000 students and their families may be just around the corner.

If the teachers and other staffers from the UNO Charter School Network walk out next week, as they have already voted to do absent a contract, they could be the first charter school union in the country to go on strike.

On Oct. 19, the day UCSN teachers set, is the same day that delegates from the Chicago Teachers Union will discuss the deal that their leaders and 40-member Big Bargaining Team agreed to Monday night, minutes before their strike deadline.

About 75 people picketed Thursday afternoon outside their charter chain’s pricey downtown headquarters. Members of UCSN Educators United were joined by allies from a few other local unions, including the Chicago Teachers Union.

The offices at 209 W. Jackson Blvd. have been a sticking point as UCSN says it can’t afford better raises or bring back staff laid off in the summer. 

“Instead of paying rent here, put the money into our schools,” read one of the picket signs.

“They think they’re too good to be in those neighborhoods where we work every day,” said Erica Stewart, a fifth-grade teacher at the Sandra Cisneros elementary school in Brighton Park. “They’re spending money on these offices, they’re spending money on high salaries that need to trickle down into quality education for our kids.”

She added, “Nobody ever wants to strike. But we need management to have a sense of urgency.”

UCSN is one of Chicago’s largest charter operators, with 16 campuses as far north as Rogers Park and as far south as Gage Park, and more than 500 teachers. The teachers and staff unionized in 2013 and have been negotiating a second contract for at least six months.

Management has asked teachers to pay more toward their pensions and health care, asking for more than $500,000 in salary cuts from the 500-plus union members.

The schools serve 8,000 students, most of them low-income. Many are also Hispanic.

In August, citing budget cuts from Chicago Public Schools, UCSN laid off its Spanish-speaking graduate support advisers, who helped eighth-graders apply to high school or high school seniors to college, walking families through the often-complicated process.

Guillermina Valdez, mother of a third-grader at the Octavio Paz campus, said it bothers her that the organization isn’t clear about how the organization spends its money.

“We’re not against them,” Valdez said. “We just want fair management. We want to know where the money is going and that the kids get what they need.”

School leaders denounced the strike, saying that it’s “unfair to put our parents and students through this considering that teachers received generous raises just two months ago. UCSN is willing to continue negotiating,” spokesman Brian Towne said in a statement.  

“Unlike CPS, UCSN does not have access to [tax-increment financing] funds for additional revenue, so any agreement we reach has to be cognizant of our financial constraints,” he continued, referring to the pot of money that secured a deal for CPS.

But UCSN leaders meanwhile have warned parents that all classes and activities will be canceled if teachers walk picket lines. “UCSN does not have the resources to keep its school buildings open during a strike,” it told them. “Families are asked to keep their student(s) at home or at a non-UCSN facility for the duration of the UEU action. Chicago Park District facilities and libraries are options to consider.”

UCSN officials say they are spending $256,000 this year in rent, locked into a seven-year lease. “Cost was a consideration in selecting this space, as was the central location” given the distance between its northernmost and southernmost campuses.

The organization says it has saved money in management costs since a forced split from the United Neighborhood Organization.

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