A Guide For Curious Students
by Fontina Battaglia
You’ve seen the Instagram posts, the board’s email, and the red shirts ChiArts teachers wear on Fridays. But what does it all mean?
In Chicago, teachers have had a union for decades called the Chicago Teachers’ Union. In the 2010s, when charter schools were created, they were not meant to be part of the CTU because they weren’t the same kind of public schools — they’re under a different kind of contract. They started their own organization, the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS), but they didn’t have much power on their own.
In 2018, CTU voted in favor of joining ChiACTS to become one union with two sections. It was the first known case in the United States where teachers from both charter schools and traditional public schools merged into a single local union.
Since ChiArts is a contract school rather than a traditional charter school, it’s a bit different for us, too.
In February of 2018, the Chicago High School for the Arts’ academic teachers voted to unionize to bargain for different working conditions and student learning conditions. In April 2022, the art teachers voted to join this union as well.
The five-year employment contract teachers had with ChiArts expired at the end of the 2021-2022 school year, forcing the teachers to work almost a year without a revised contract. With the joining of the Art Teachers, new contracts have been proposed, negotiated, and rejected. But why?
Patrick Lentz, a Photography teacher and Visual Arts department assistant said, “Union contracts are rarely a ‘one-size-fits-all’ kind of deal. Quality contracts consider the range of experiences and make sure nobody is left behind in the language that is put into a contract. Which makes our contract even more unique in a school with five conservatories.”
If the ChiArts Board recognizes both unions as one and agrees to their contract, this could give arts teachers paid planning time, access to health insurance, and necessary materials in their classrooms such as sanitizing wipes. They’re also hoping for a contract that would ensure long-term substitutes to replace teachers who are missing CPS-required classes such as Computer Science and Human Geography. Despite the desperate need for teachers, the current starting pay for a long-term substitute is $17.50 an hour.
However, this brings both financial problems and questions. According to Chris Cashman, a Spanish teacher at ChiArts, financial cuts only began to occur when the union was signed in and negotiated. ”Because of some things that the academic teachers gained, things at the school were cut, like the French program,” Cashman said. The French program was cut right before the 2019-2020 school year.
Cashman also said there could be bigger financial issues if the art teachers had all the same benefits as academic teachers. There are different teachers who teach different hours at the school, ranging from a percussion teacher who comes in once a week and teachers for an hour, to teachers who teach different classes every single day. He went on to say that the original purpose of the arts program was to be part-time and to be paid to teach future artists important, job-specific skills.
“It’s unfortunate, but it is the case, that most part-time jobs in this economy and the world we live in tend not to provide the benefits to their part-time employees… I question if the school will be able to continue offering the programs that it offers if certain demands existing right now are put through and accepted,” Cashman said.
Duffie Adelson, ChiArts School Board Chair, said, “ChiArts is committed to coming to an agreement on a fair and sustainable contract that recognizes the important contributions of ChiArts arts and academic teachers.”
This contract also impacts students. From unpaid lesson planning time to unsustainable jobs, teachers sometimes feel that they are not being paid for the hours they put into their work.
Jordyn Birden, a long-term substitute and arts teacher expressed frustration that there is no Diverse Learning support during Conservatory.
English teacher Megan Pietz said, “It’s just so important that students feel safe at school, that teachers feel safe at school, our environment is sustainable so people want to be here and want to stay here. And our schools are supportive of students no after how they identify or what groups they might be a part of.”
If you want more information about the union, you can talk to your teachers, administrators, or even members of the board.