Chicago Math and Science Academy: Great Academics, Ugly Unionbusting

Kim Bobo

A top Chicago charter school has done great things for students, but won’t recognize strong teacher support for a union

Chicago Math and Science Academy is a charter school on Chicago’s far north side neighborhood of Rogers Park, an ethnically and economically diverse community that has struggled to have quality public schools. Community residents were pleased when the charter school was founded in 2004.

Until last year, I only vaguely knew about the school because one of my choir members, who spoke highly of the school and its teachers, attended and graduated in its 2010 class, which had a college acceptance rate of 100 percent. But the school loomed larger when it moved from its original location to a spot about one block from my house.

Although I had been inside the school once, I had never met its leadership or teachers. Nor did I know much about its philosophy. I just knew it was doing a good job. The academy, as its website touts, is one of the top three charter schools in Chicago. It’s clearly doing something right for the students and their families. But there is some weirdness here.

The academy is a part of Concept Schools. According to its website, Concept Schools is a management organization founded in 2002 to support and develop charter schools that seek to integrate the best aspect of the Turkish and American educational systems. Concepts Schools have grown from two to 19 schools, of which 16 are in Ohio, and one each in Indiana, Michigan and Illinois. Concept Schools bring in teachers from Turkey, Russia and other European countries to help teach math and sciences. Currently, approximately 25 percent of the faculty are international teachers.

What neither the Concept Schools nor the Chicago Math and Science Academy websites mention is that most of the leadership is part of something called the Gulen Movement. Despite my many years of interfaith work, I was not familiar with the Gulen Movement, although what I have read about it impresses me. But there is something weird about a charter school being so closely linked to a philosophy, the Gulen Movement, that isn’t even mentioned or referred to on its website.

When I went to the school’s board meeting on July 8, I was taken aback to see a board of directors comprised entirely of men. They all appeared of Turkish, Bosnian or Croatian descent. Although I have nothing against Turkish, Bosnian or Croatian men, it does seem that a school board serving students who are 58 percent Hispanic/​Latino, 25 percent African American, 12 percent Asian and 5 percent white might be well served by some women board members and board members from ethnic backgrounds the school predominantly serves.

And now for what really worries me: In the winter of 2010, the teachers began to organize a union. They were concerned about staff turnover, which they believe is related to frustrations about having little input into decisions affecting their work and teaching. They were eager to help the school’s leadership grapple with issues around budgeting, staffing and turnover. The teachers believed that the best way for them to have the input they needed and affect the direction of the school was to organize a union.

So the teachers contacted Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (Chicago ACTS), a local union of charter school teachers and staff members affiliated with the Illinois Federation of Teachers (AFT). Two-thirds of the teachers signed union authorization cards, clearly indicating strong teacher support for having a union.

On the afternoon of June 23, the teachers announced to Principal Ali Yilmaz that they were forming a union. But right before they marched into his office to deliver the message, Yilmaz, apparently tipped off about the event, fired Rhonda Hartwell. The two had just concluded a meeting on an unrelated matter, though Hartwell said she had deliberately set up the meeting to ensure Yilmaz would be present for the announcement. Yilmaz cited budget reasons for the termination, but in February, the school asked Hartwell to return in the fall, and on April 8, she signed her 2010-2011 contract. Furthermore, Hartwell had scored a 5” on her teacher evaluation — the highest achievable rating — and was awarded a $1,500 performance bonus.

Hartwell’s colleagues rave about her commitment to teaching and to her students. Every single Chicago Math and Science Academy teacher I have met believes she should be rehired. And collectively, they do not buy the argument that she was let go just because of budget constraints. At the same time that Rhonda was let go, the school was asking for help from local elected politicians in getting more teachers brought in a special visa programs. Something doesn’t sound right here.

Chicago Math and Science Academy has hired Seyfarth Shaw, a notoriously expensive union-busting law firm, to advise it in dealing with the union. Anyone who has experience in labor issues in Chicago knows the anti-union reputation of Seyfarth Shaw. It is sad that a school facing budget cuts would waste resources in hiring a law firm to help it fight having a union. But that is exactly what is happening.

Charter schools in Illinois are covered by the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, which requires that a union be certified when a simple majority (50 percent plus one) of teachers signs a union authorization card.” This process is referred to as card check.” (The Concepts Schools website clearly states its support for state laws.)

Apparently, some charter operators do not believe such state regulations extend to labor relations. On July 29, Chicago Math and Science Academy filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board claiming it should be covered by the NLRB and not the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. This switch would mean that the school would not have to recognize the union, but would rather be able to insist on a board certified election. The principal told a community delegation I led on August 5 that he now believes the union wouldn’t have as many supporters with all the laid-off teachers. I’m sure he didn’t mean to imply that he laid off union supporters – but it sure sounded like it!

Compounding the ugly is the blatantly anti-union letter Yilmaz sent to parents. It is written in classic anti-union code – probably scripted by Seyfarth Shaw’s high-paid attorneys. It calls the teachers’ union some third party individuals.” It claims that the union

has not yet been certified as the exclusive bargaining representative of CMSA’s teachers and staff. Rather, a prolonged investigation period still needs to be conducted by the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. According to the agency, one reason for such an investigation is to ensure that the union has not solicited support from employees through fraud or coercion.

Basically, Yilmaz is suggesting that the teachers and staff themselves fraudulently collected cards. How insulting!

Chicago Math and Science Academy is a great school offering a great education for neighborhood kids. This is good and we are all grateful for the school’s good work. The school’s leadership is clearly not being very forthcoming about its priorities and connection to the Gulen movement. And the union-busting and disrespect shown to its teachers in the process is downright ugly. This kind of behavior will not endear its leadership to the community, and is bound to cause dissension and turnover within the teaching staff.

Chicago Math and Science Academy has a choice. It can continue down its low-road path, attacking teachers, ignoring community concerns and wasting money on high-priced union- busting lawyers. Or it can choose a path which seems much more in line with the Gulen values of respect, integrity and sincerity. It can choose to recognize the teachers union, negotiate in good faith with the teachers, rehire Rhonda Hartwell, and rebuild ties with a community eager to learn more about and support a good public school in the neighborhood.

But a public school must listen to the public. Chicago Math and Science Academy, are you listening?

Kim Bobo, founder and executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice and a columnist for Religion Dispatches, is the author of Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid -- And What We Can Do About It (The New Press) and co-author of Organizing for Social Change, the best-selling organizing manual in the country.
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