PI Original Angela Caputo Monday May 18th, 2009, 5:07pm

CPS Claims Charter School Teachers "Are Not Public Employees"

Last week, we noted that a unionization bid by teachers at three Civitas charter schools is stalled due to a jurisdictional disagreement.  While the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board (IELRB) certified the teachers' petition for union representation last month, Chicago ...

Last week, we noted that a unionization bid by teachers at three Civitas charter schools is stalled due to a jurisdictional disagreement.  While the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board (IELRB) certified the teachers' petition for union representation last month, Chicago International Charter Schools (CICS) contends that the petition actually belongs before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).  This gets down to the question of whether charter schools -- which receive taxpayer funding -- are public institutions (and governed by the IELRB) or part of the private sector (and under the NLRB's purview).  Until the NLRB weighs in on the issue, CICS is refusing to recognize the union.

Earlier this month, a group of state lawmakers sent a letter demanding that Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officials break their neutrality and affirm the "public nature of charter schools."  But last week, CPS was still releasing ambiguous statements about the matter, such as this one to the Tribune:

Although Chicago Public Schools oversee these charters they contend the issue is a private labor dispute.

"It should be treated that way and we will respect that process," district spokeswoman Monique Bond said in an e-mail.

Got that?  Neither did we.  So, in an effort to better understand the district's position, we asked Bond for a clarification on Friday: Did she mean that the dispute is "private"? Or that the schools themselves are "private"?  Here's her response, via email:

The best interpretation is that a Charter School holds its own license.  The Civitas Schools LLC employees are not public employees.  They are employees of a privately held limited liability company organized under Illinois law.  Civitas has contracted with CICS to operate three of its campuses.  It’s not even clear that charter schools are subject to state labor laws, let alone their contractors.

That's as affirmative a position as we've seen CPS take.

Moreover, Bond's answer opens up all sorts of questions about how much accountability the public can demand from charter schools, despite the fact that taxpayers provide the bulk of their funding. By implicitly backing up the' "private entity" defense, Bond is actually suggesting that Civitas may not be subject to the regulations its parent organization (CICS) must follow.

In a comment at Alexander Russo's blog last week, former Catalyst reporter Maureen Kelleher raised an interesting point about how CPS' own authority plays into this debate:

What happens if Civitas ever tried to make the same argument (it's a private organization not bound by laws pertaining to public entities) to refuse to comply with some remaining oversight provision CPS required of it? We know charters are exempt from most public school regulations, but they still have to turn data over to the district, still have to serve special education students ... etc. It seems to me CPS could undermine it's own authority over Civitas if it too strongly supports their argument against unions.

Meanwhile, the Chi-Town Daily News reports today that the union seeking to represent the Civitas teachers -- the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ACTS) -- has filed two complaints with the IELRB:

The complaints by Chicago ACTS charge that Civitas administrators have denied teacher requests for union representation and used public funds to pay for "union-avoidance" services, in violation of state law.

According to union organizers, Chicago International Charter School has hired the Mickus Group, a labor-relations consultancy, and Civitas hired the law firm Goldberg Kohn, to fight organizing efforts.

The Mickus Group's Web site states that the firm "has garnered an impeccable reputation for its services in assisting management in winning union elections" and is "based on the premise that the best campaign is one that never happens."

Read the whole thing.

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