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UNO charter schools to allow teachers to join a union

Updated: April 10, 2013 6:08AM

One of the largest charter school operators in Chicago, the politically influential United Neighborhood Organization, has agreed to clear the way for teachers at its schools to join a union.

The move represents a sharp change for UNO CEO Juan Rangel, a co-chairman of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2011 campaign who strongly criticized the Chicago Teachers Union for going on strike last year and ran radio ads at that time noting how the strike didn’t affect UNO’s nonunionized schools.

Rangel’s newly forged deal with the Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, known as Chicago ACTS, comes a month after the Chicago Sun-Times reported that UNO had spent millions of dollars from a state school-construction grant to pay contractors with ties to the group.

Charter proponents generally shun unions, but Friday’s announcement could alter the landscape dramatically for charters, which are privately run but rely heavily on taxpayer funds.

Chicago ACTS currently has members in only 14 charter schools but would roughly double in size if the teachers at UNO’s 13 schools vote to join the union. Though that union is not part of the CTU, it is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, a national labor group that the CTU also is affiliated with.

AFT president Randi Weingarten said Friday the deal with UNO “has the potential to change the conversation between charter operators and teachers.”

In a letter to UNO teachers posted on the charter teachers union’s website, the president of Chicago ACTS, Brian Harris, wrote: “We now have received a commitment from the management of UNO Charter Schools to respect your rights to choose to have a union.”

Charter teachers union officials say they have been able to negotiate better pay and greater safeguards to protect their members from being fired.

But unionizing UNO teachers could undermine much of what charter proponents like about such schools, including their greater ability to fire poorly performing teachers and keep personnel costs in check.

The UNO Charter Schools Network has more than 450 employees, including teachers and support staff, and about 6,500 students attend its schools. The average salaries for the 390 teachers at UNO’s schools was $50,732 a year, payroll data shows. That’s more than $20,000 a year less than the average for Chicago Public Schools teachers.

Harris, the Chicago ACTS president, said it would be up to UNO teachers to decide whether, if they agree to join they union, they would then try to negotiate for better pay.

More than half of UNO’s teachers had five years of classroom experience or less, the group said in a financial document filed in 2011.

UNO’s main office is near downtown Chicago. As of January, its management staff included 44 employees paid an average of almost $85,000 a year, including six executives with annual salaries of at least $150,000.

An UNO spokesman declined to comment Friday. But the organization issued a written statement that said in part: “UNO has long-held strong relationships with unions, and we believe that the labor movement is an essential partner in the fight for social justice and economic equality. This agreement is consistent with our founding values . . . . This agreement is an opportunity for UNO and Chicago ACTS to elevate the dialogue around school reform in the spirit of cooperation.”

Harris and other union leaders had been among the leading voices criticizing UNO in response to the Feb. 4 report in the Sun-Times that detailed contract cronyism involving a $98 million state grant.

UNO’s second-in-command, Miguel d’Escoto, quit his $200,000 post as senior vice president and chief of staff eight days after the newspaper reported on contracts landed by two of his brothers.

Rangel announced last month that the group was temporarily suspending doing business with d’Escoto Inc., owned by a Federico “Fred” d’Escoto, a brother of Miguel d’Escoto. UNO had paid d’Escoto Inc. more than $1.5 million from the state grant.

State officials are looking into whether UNO violated conflict-of-interest restrictions in the grant contract.

In an article posted Feb. 27 on the Chicago ACTS website, Harris cited the Sun-Times reports, saying, “Imagine an UNO where management did not squander taxpayer dollars on political favoritism and clout.”

Harris also noted the high salary UNO pays Rangel. He makes $250,000 a year — the same as Barbara Byrd-Bennett, chief executive officer for Chicago’s public school system.

On Friday, Harris said of the insider deals, “The best way for that to be policed is by having a staff that is unionized” and unafraid of getting fired for questioning management.

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