Private But Not Powerless

Parker’s Faculty Association Protects Teachers at Private School

Parker families are reminded by their school’s yearly tuition that they go to a private school. Students don’t have to pledge allegiance to the flag or adhere to the state-prescribed curriculum. There’s a white spiral-bound book, however, kept in teachers’ desk drawers, that sets Parker apart from a typical private school. It’s the faculty’s contract, proof of Parker’s teachers union. The Francis W. Parker Faculty Association negotiates with the administration to define their conditions of employment and then uses them to protect teachers.

This contract is called the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). The Faculty Association, also known simply as the teacher’s union, has used the force of the collective for the 20 years the union has been at Parker. 

Unions organize workers so they can use their numbers to negotiate with their bosses and protect their own. Parker’s union protects its members by making sure their contract isn’t violated and that it gives the teachers a fair salary and benefits in the first place. Over 90% of the faculty is in the union and pays their dues to the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT). Members meet twice a year and can join specialized committees to negotiate or analyze the contract.

It’s headed by President Upper School Mathematics Teacher Victoria Lee and Vice President Educational Technology Integration Specialist Sarah Beebee, who lead alongside a treasurer and a secretary. Officials are elected on two-year cycles on a staggered schedule so there’s always someone leading with one year of experience. 

The current contract has been in place since 2016 and will end in 2022. In it, the union and the administration agree on the teachers’ salaries, workload, student load, and benefits, but also more specific scenarios, like long term substitute pay and the role of an advisor.

In the year leading up to a new agreement, union leadership send out surveys to the members and research contracts at similar schools to draft the proposals they will present to the President of the Board of Trustees Rika Yoshida and Principal Dan Frank. 

“You look to see where the volume is of issues and problems,” Lee said, “because if it’s just a one-person problem… you’re not going to spend a lot of time negotiating something that is affecting only one person.” Lee asks the faculty what they want to preserve from the contract so they protect what’s good and renegotiate what needs to be changed in the CBA.

Issues like class sizes and hours can be job- or division-specific, but the faculty’s broader concerns are the same. “On those longer-term things, I think there’s probably a fair level of commonality of interest in that,” fourth-grade teacher and member of the negotiation team Miriam Pickus said. “The numbers are slightly different in the other divisions because things operate differently, but the global desire that we have to have these class sizes allow us to really know students individually is the same across divisions.” 

“I just want to make sure that our salary increases each year reflect the cost of living changes each year,” Upper School History Teacher and former president Andrew Bigelow of the union said. “Many of us left public schools and came to Parker so we gave up our pension plan. We gave up better pay for really, a much better, more progressive experience.” 

The Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund distributes retirement benefits of almost $1.4 billion to retired public school teachers. Parker matches what each teacher puts into their retirement fund and doubles it until the contribution reaches four percent of a teacher’s salary.

Not everyone from the union negotiates, but the contract must pass with a majority vote when negotiation is over. The union’s leadership and negotiation team go back and forth with the administration daily for the next four to five days.

 Meetings are typically a few hours in the afternoon, but negotiations can go to 1 or 2 a.m. on their last night. “We’re negotiating for our own personal lives, our own personal economies,” Bigelow said.

“Parker gets a great deal,” Bigelow said. “They get these veteran teachers coming to Parker…and our goal is to make sure that the contract honors our experience and expertise because we’ll never make what they make at New Trier.” The average salary for teachers in New Trier’s district is about $114,000 according to documents released by New Trier, while Parker teachers make around $55,000, according to

Through negotiations only take place officially in one year, the President and Vice President field concerns from faculty about whether the administration is following the contract. If there’s a question, leadership looks at the language of the CBA and clarifies the issue with the administration. 

In unique circumstances that aren’t covered by the CBA, teachers can propose addendums to the contract in a written letter to the administration. When issues come up that need immediate attention, Lee can email Frank and schedule a meeting. 

Lee and Beebe meet once or twice a month, sometimes more, with Frank and Associate Principal Ruth Jurgensen to keep up regular communication between the union and the administration.

The administration is also involved in the teachers’ evaluation cycles. Teachers are regularly evaluated by their division and department heads, so if a teacher is asked to leave, there is documentation on performance to prove it’s a fair firing. “You want to make sure your teachers are good,” Lee said. “If you don’t go in their room, you don’t know if they’re good.” 

If the administration wants to fire a teacher with tenure, they have to offer definite goals and a chance for improvement. Evaluation policies are detailed in a separate document, but the CBA requires that these policies exist and protects teachers from unfair termination. “Sometimes unions protect people that you don’t want to be protected,” Lee said. “We don’t want to protect the crappy teachers, but you have to show reasons why they’re crappy.”

High-stakes situations, such as firings, are managed by Lee and Beebe, but the union is connected to the IFT and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) for extra support. “We have someone who is assigned to us and they are a vital resource. Anytime we have a conflict, we run it by them and they give us support and that’s all paid for by our dues,” Bigelow said.

The AFT covers 1.7 million members across 3,000 local divisions. Education is the largest division of professionals it represents, made up of mostly public schools.

Parker is one of the only private schools in the country with a unionized faculty. Notably, Latin doesn’t have a union and Lab’s only formed in the past five years. Latin and Parker have a big difference in what’s offered in their contracts. “One of the reasons why I chose Parker over Latin was because of the union,” Bigelow said. “I couldn’t imagine signing a contract that wasn’t attached to a union.”

Previous to Parker, Bigelow taught at three different public schools, all of which had unionized faculty. Negotiation for public schools depends on property taxes, not tuition, and in Bigelow’s experience, more nitty-gritty argument. “We used to come down to fighting over minutes in the day for bathroom breaks, dollars per day, the number of students per class, it really was sometimes so minuscule it was painful,” Bigelow said. 

Parker doesn’t offer a pension or the same pay as public schools, but it does bring more resources and stability during economic downturn since salary doesn’t come from the public. “When the Great Recession happened here at Parker, we were in a contract, so we didn’t lose anything,” Bigelow said.

It offers another kind of stability to teachers. “I know I can go to them and say ‘x thing is concerning to me’ and they won’t take it out of my paycheck the next year,” Pickus said. 

Parker teachers have to pay dues to be a member of the union, but those who don’t buy-in are still protected under the CBA and receive the same benefits and salary the union negotiated. 

“I respect someone who doesn’t want to join the union if they have fundamental ideologically beliefs that unions are counterproductive,” Bigelow said. “At the same time, I’m worried that people think that way because, without this union, our pay and our benefits wouldn’t be half as good as they are now.”

Though the majority of faculty is in the membership, the union isn’t often publicized. “I like for students to know that we have a union, it helps frame the conversation,” Bigelow said. “I often say ‘How many of you guys know someone in a union?’ Nobody raises their hand and I like to go, ‘You’re looking at one.’” 

Pickus doesn’t think students need knowledge of the union as it doesn’t always change their daily life. “As someone who’s been a great believer in the union, there are plenty of times it doesn’t matter to us at faculty in the minute-to-minute,” Pickus said. “That may not help me on any random Tuesday teaching long division.”

“Hopefully our kids who love Parker and respect what Parker does respects the fact that Parker has a teacher’s union and that this private institution agreed to it,” Bigelow said. 

Pickus believes that the administration and the union want to hear each other. “We’re a small group, they’re a smaller group, and we work six inches from each other,” Pickus said. Parker’s union has never gone on strike and only threatened work-to-rule, a negotiation tactic where teachers work within the hours the contract specifies and stop extra work like grading papers.

“A healthy, happy faculty is a healthy, happy school,” Bigelow said. “When we passed this contract, we cheered, we clapped, we didn’t get everything we wanted, but we got a lot, and so did the administration.”