Folk music teachers reach agreement in principle on contract

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

The school’s teacher artists voted overwhelmingly to unionize with the Illinois Federation of Teachers in 2019, forming the Old Town Teachers Organization. The union represents around 200 teachers in various subjects, most of whom teach at the school part-time.

The tentative agreement is still subject to a ratification vote by union members and approval by the school’s full board, according to IFT spokeswoman Jennifer Hill. Union leaders and the school’s executive director and CEO, Jim Newcomb, said they hoped the contract would be ratified soon. Hill said ratification must “take place before the end of the month.”

“It’s a very fair contract, we’re really glad we were 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 is a lot of improvement in the working conditions as well as in the salary structure.”

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

Both parties confirmed that, if ratified, the tentative agreement would provide salary increases for teachers, starting with a 4% increase in the first year, and including increases to starting salaries. The contract would also expand 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 a week are not eligible for health coverage, and the change would allow more teachers to accumulate enough working hours to meet that threshold. The contract would also lower the threshold of hours per week for teachers to be eligible for paid leave.

For more than two years, the union and the school administration failed to come to an agreement. In late May, teachers gathered outside Ravenswood School ahead of one of the union’s final bargaining sessions, where they performed union songs and pushed the school’s management to reach an agreement with its staff.

“You’d think the Old Town School of Folk Music,” said a speaker at the rally, noting the school’s exhibit of portraits 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 that he rejected “the suggestion that the school would drag out negotiations in any way”, and said his relationship with the staff was “100% a partnership between both teams at this stage.”

The parties reached the tentative agreement after a final nine-hour negotiating session on Thursday, the IFT said in a statement.

“We organized because it was the only way to be heard,” said union co-chair Bill Brickey. He has worked at the school since 1990. “It was the only way for our requests, our needs to have weight.”

Brickey paid tribute to the school’s management and board for their willingness to come to the bargaining table.

“They should be applauded for that, and we should be applauded for holding them accountable,” he said.

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