THE LOOP — Teachers at the UNO Charter School Network picketed Thursday afternoon outside management offices as they gear up for a Wednesday walkout — a strike that would be the first in the nation at a charter school.
"We're here because we're in a fight for a new contract," said Erica Stewart, a fifth-grade teacher at Cisneros School in Gage Park. "They're trying to cram kids into our classrooms."
More than 95 percent of the 532 members of the United Educators of UNO voted last week to strike, setting a deadline of next Wednesday.
They charged Thursday that UNO, which has been beset in the past by accusations of financial mismanagement and corruption, was squandering money with high-priced Loop offices.
"They think they're too good to be in those neighborhoods where we work every day," Stewart said. She urged UNO Charter management to "come down out of their big tower here and do the right thing."
In addition to wage, pension and benefit issues, Stewart said teachers are asking to limit class sizes to what they called "a status quo of 32 kids a classroom," adding that they are after "a fair contract for our kids and our teachers."
Guillermina Valdez, a parent at Octavio Paz School, said UNO Charter Network had also eliminated graduate-support advisers, who played a key role in getting students accepted at Chicago Public School's selective-enrollment high schools and, later on, into colleges. She said parents were rebuffed a few days ago when they attempted to meet with UNO Charter management.
The 95 percent of UNO teachers who voted last week to strike paralleled the 96 percent of Chicago Teachers Union voters who authorized a strike against Chicago Public Schools this fall. The UNO Charter teachers announced last week they'd join their CPS counterparts in a walkout, but that was halted by Tuesday's 11th-hour contract agreement.
The UNO teachers, however, have not reached a new pact, and their contract formally expired Sunday.
"Nobody ever wants to strike," Stewart said. "But we need management to have a sense of urgency."
"Parents make a choice to send their children to charter schools," the UNO network responded in a statement. "We respect that choice and intend to continue working in earnest to reach an agreement that is fair to our employees and, most importantly, allows us to continue providing the quality education for which UCSN is known. Unlike CPS, UCSN does not have access to TIF funds for additional revenue, so any agreement we reach has to be cognizant of our financial constraints."
The UNO Charter School Network serves almost 8,000 students at 13 elementary schools and three high schools, mostly on the Southwest Side. It has said those schools would be closed during a teacher walkout, as it "does not have the resources to keep its school buildings open during a strike."
The charter network has insisted it will "continue to work in earnest to reach a mutually agreeable contract" with the teacher union.
Yet its statement Thursday added, "It is 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 even though the UEU and their contracted CTU representatives have declined UCSN’s offer to extend the previous contract as well as our offer to have a federal mediator assist in negotiations to help bring this matter to a conclusion."
Robert Bloch, the attorney for the Chicago Teachers Union, is also working with the UNO teachers.
Teachers have also said they're pursuing an agreement, but added in a statement that "management is demanding concessions that threaten workers’ economic security and undermine conditions for students in the classroom, including the potential to increase class size — a move that is also wildly unpopular with students and parents."
Although charters are known — and often criticized — for not having union teachers, the founding United Neighborhood Organization allowed teachers to unionize three years ago in the midst of a state probe into charges of "cronyism and nepotism," and financial mismanagement.
The UNO Charter School Network has since split off as a separate entity.
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: