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Old Town School of Folk Music teachers announce tentative contract agreement

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Teachers at the Old Town School of Folk Music announced Friday that they have reached a tentative first contract agreement with the school’s board of directors, nearing the end of a protracted negotiation that had lasted for more than two years.

The school’s teaching artists voted overwhelmingly to unionize with the Illinois Federation of Teachers in 2019, forming the Old Town Teachers Organization. The union represents about 200 teachers in a variety of disciplines, most of whom teach at the school part time.

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The tentative agreement is still subject to a ratification vote by union membership and approval of the school’s full board, according to Jennifer Hill, a spokesperson for the IFT. Both union leadership and school executive director and CEO Jim Newcomb said they hoped the contract would be ratified soon. Hill said ratification was “expected to occur before the end of the month.”

“It’s a very fair contract, we’re really thrilled to have been able to negotiate it,” said Dona Benkert, a member of the union’s bargaining committee who has taught at the school for more than three decades. “There’s a lot of improvement in the working conditions as well as the pay structure.”

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“We are very happy to have reached a tentative agreement with our faculty,” Newcomb said. “It was a long, hard slog, but I think everyone involved can be happy with the contract, which balances the needs of our teachers, students and the school.”

Both parties confirmed that, if ratified, the tentative agreement would provide for pay increases for teaching staff, starting with a 4% raise in the first year, and including increases in starting wages. The contract would also widen the pool of teachers eligible for health insurance by giving teachers credit, and paying them for time between classes. Teachers who work less than 18 hours per week are not eligible for health coverage, and the change would allow more teachers to bank enough working hours to meet that threshold. The contract would also lower the hours-per-week threshold for teachers to be eligible for paid time off.

For more than two years, the union and the school’s management were unable to reach a contract agreement. In late May, teachers gathered outside the school in Ravenswood before one of the union’s final bargaining sessions, where they performed union songs and prodded the school’s management to come to an agreement with its staff.

“You would think that the Old Town School of Folk Music,” one speaker at the rally said, noting the school’s display of portraits of the likes of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, “would know the answer to the question ‘Which side are you on?’ ”

After that rally, Newcomb told the Tribune he rejected “the suggestion that the school is dragging out negotiations in any way,” and said its relationship with the staff was “100% a partnership between the two teams at this point.”

Parties reached the tentative agreement following a final nine-hour bargaining session on Thursday, the IFT said in a statement.

“We organized because it was the only way to be heard,” said Bill Brickey, the union’s co-president. He has worked at the school since 1990. “It was the only way that our requests, our needs, carried any weight.”

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Brickey gave credit to the school’s management and board for being willing to come to the bargaining table.

“They’re to be applauded for it, and we are to be applauded for holding them accountable,” he said.

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