HUMBOLDT PARK — Teachers at ChiArts, the only arts-focused public high school in the city, say contract negotiations with the school’s board have stalled and they’re prepared to go on strike next week if an agreement isn’t reached after more than a year of bargaining.
A few dozen teachers, parents and school staffers rallied Wednesday outside the Humboldt Park/West Town school at 2714 W. Augusta Blvd., holding signs that read, “Staff our schools” and “Sustainable jobs! Sustainable schools!”
The teachers, who are represented by the Chicago Teachers Union’s charter division, have accused administrators of cutting school programs and support services, and “put[ting] their salaries and their own interests over providing a world-class education to our passionate young artists.”
They could walk out as soon as Sept. 6.
“They have seven days left on the clock to come to their senses or face a walkout,” said music teacher Kyle A. Cortés, a member of the bargaining team.
ChiArts is a privately managed contract school funded by the district and private donors. It enrolls about 600 students across the city, most of them Black and Hispanic, according to CPS data. The students get both an academic and arts education.
Like charter schools, ChiArts has its own independent board.
In recent years, consistent layoffs and delays in hiring have created “instability for our students and entire school community,” union-backed teachers said in a news release.
Teachers said they’ve spent the summer fending off layoffs and cuts to arts programs. Students are suffering because the school doesn’t have a fully-staffed counseling team or a full-time nurse, they said.
The board, however, said they’ve been bargaining in good faith and have committed to bolstering school programs and services, including rolling out a 16 percent wage increase for all teachers and teaching artists and reinstating arts instruction to three hours a day.
Claims that the school isn’t protecting vulnerable students and providing nursing are false, the board said.
“ChiArts has already agreed to support proposals protecting special education, diversity and undocumented students, and has consistently provided nursing services at the school,” the board said in a written statement.
The two sides are also at odds over the ChiArts Foundation, which raises money for the school.
Teachers charge the foundation is “unethical” and “gives more power to an unaccountable handpicked board than to the parents, students and educators at the school,” the release said.
The foundation “skirts requirements for open meetings and transparency mandated by law,” teachers allege.
But the board stands firmly in support of the school’s funding partner.
Thanks to an influx of $600,000 from the foundation, the school will continue to operate its five arts conservatories for a full three hours a day, the board said.
“We are immensely grateful to the Foundation, which has raised tens of
millions of dollars to support arts programs at the school since its inception,” the board’s statement reads.
The school’s Executive Director, Tina Boyer Brown, didn’t return a message seeking comment.
Teachers and administrators will head back to the bargaining table this week.
If ChiArts teachers go on strike, it will be their second time walking off the job in four years.
In 2019, teachers went on strike over a lack of resources, low teacher pay and other issues, but the action fizzled after they reached a tentative agreement with administrators the same evening.
Teachers at Wednesday’s rally said striking again may be the only path forward.
Government and economics teacher Alex Cookman said they fought off cuts this summer, and they won’t back down until a fair contract agreement is reached.
“We’ve won … but we are not done winning,” Cookman said. Students “need counselors to support their mental health, they need nurses to support their physical health, they need social workers to connect them with resources and they need a fully-staffed team of teachers with the kind of wages, benefits and workplace protections that allow us to provide for our own families, while we’re here caring for somebody else’s,” he said.
“We are here — teachers, parents, students and community members — because we still believe in that vision from 14 years ago, we believe in the best version of ChiArts that we see expressed by the powerful voices and creative skills of our students.”
The teachers have the support of Humboldt Park Ald. Jessie Fuentes (26th), who attended Wednesday’s rally, sign in hand.
Fuentes, who has talked publicly about growing up around poverty, violence and incarceration, said poetry and theater “saved my life.”
“Our young people deserve a fully-staffed and fully-funded conservatory because arts is what saves lives,” the alderwoman said.
ChiArts teachers “walk into that institution every day caring about the lives of young people, often having to be social workers and counselors, when we don’t have those positions filled. They showed up during COVID, when other people did not. They made sure that our young people had the love and care they deserved,” Fuentes said.
The shaky contract negotiations follow a heated, prolonged battle between ChiArts students and administrators.
Hundreds of students marched outside the school last year, accusing administrators of creating a “toxic” school environment where they don’t feel protected from sexual misconduct among their peers.
Students also used the protest to show support for teaching artists, who they said deserve better job protections, and to lament the firing a favorite teacher.
Administrators have said they’ve taken meaningful steps toward resolving the school’s issues in the wake of the outcry, including rolling out sexual assault training for faculty and staff, bringing in an independent organization to review the school’s human resources department and adding parents to the board.
In an email, the board’s interim chair, Duffie Adelson, said ChiArts is an “absolutely remarkable” school.
“We are working as hard as we can to reach a settlement and we believe that we will. We only want the best for our students as they deserve a world class education,” Adelson said.
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