Future of Quest Center, partnership schools in limbo

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As representatives of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) investigate the bitter Chicago Teachers Union election dispute, leadership isn’t the only thing in question.

A major grant to the Quest Center is on hold. And the future of the ‘partnership schools,’ failing schools that the union took over last year, is up in the air as well.

Facing the possibility that Marilyn Stewart, a leader with more interest in bread-and-butter union issues than education reform, could eventually replace sitting President Deborah Lynch, The Chicago Community Trust temporarily froze a $740,000 grant awarded in May to the Quest Center. The money was earmarked for a program, launched in 2001, to prepare teachers for the rigorous National Board Certification program.

Without the money, the Quest Center’s plans to open two satellite sites for National Board training are stalled. Prior to the election, the Trust had inserted a contingency clause in its grant agreement that required any new union leadership to commit to the program or lose the funds.

If Stewart eventually takes over as president, that commitment is not yet assured, says Jennifer Jobrack, a Trust spokeswoman. “Would the leadership remain supportive of the mission of the Quest Center?” she asks. “We hope so. But obviously they have a lot of issues to iron out first.”

One major issue is whether Quest Director Allen Bearden, who wrote the grant application, would remain on board if Stewart takes over. On June 28, the day before Stewart’s plans to take charge were thwarted by a Lynch-appointed canvassing committee that invalidated the election, Stewart’s lead lawyer visited union headquarters to deliver pink slips to Bearden and other staff aligned with Lynch. Following the lawyer’s actions, Lynch changed the office locks, claiming authority until a new election.

Bearden’s expertise and involvement in the education community is a major plus for Quest Center funders, and any newcomer would have to reestablish those relationships and credentials.

It’s not clear whether Stewart would follow through and fire Bearden, who has stayed on while Lynch remains in power. Stewart declined to discuss personnel issues during a phone interview. But she contends that under Lynch, professional development staff and programs have ballooned, at the expense of member services. “This is a union, not a university,” Stewart says.

Bearden, however, says he “will only stay at Quest if – and only if – there is a clear commitment to [its] efforts.” The union spent slightly more than $1 million on Quest Center operating expenses last year, Bearden says. But course fees and grant money pay most of the costs.

Mary McGuire, Stewart’s recording secretary, also says there’s a need to ensure that the Center’s Jacqueline B. Vaughn Graduate School is not a drain on union resources. McGuire points out that the school, which offers a master’s program in teacher leadership, enrolled only 11 teachers last year.

Bearden, the school’s president, says that aside from promotion activities, the school operates independently of the union. Tuition fees pay instructors’ salaries

Stewart stressed that she has no plans to gut the Quest Center. “We’re not trying to throw out the baby with the bath water,” she says. “We need to get in and evaluate what is going on, but not to vindictively get rid of any programs.”

Partnership schools

Meanwhile, the future of the union’s partnership schools, which Lynch pushed for as a way to turn around failing schools, is in jeopardy, thanks to Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Renaissance 2010 plan to create 100 new schools in the next six years. Three of 10 are now slated for closure. (See related story.)

The plan also puts hundreds of union teaching jobs on the line by shutting down dozens of existing schools and replacing them with contract and charter schools. Charter school teachers cannot be represented by the union, while provisions for contract school hiring are unclear.

Both Lynch and Stewart say they have deep reservations about the mayor’s plan. Lynch attacked Daley and the School Board at a July 21 press conference held at Attucks Elementary on the South Side, one of the three schools to be shut down at the end of the 2004-05 school year. (The other two are Hartigan and Raymond elementary schools.)

Lynch called the plan “an outrage,” pointing out that six of eight partnership elementary schools made achievement gains, including two slated for closure. (High school test scores have not yet been reported.) Regardless of who’s in charge, Lynch says, union members demand a voice in school closings.

“Giving up on management of [these] schools is an admission of defeat,” she charges. “It’s not bold and inventive. What is bold and inventive is focusing on the people in those schools as resources to turn those schools around.”

Seven partnership schools will get one more year of CPS funding to continue reforms. The union then expects the schools to assume financial responsibility for reforms, which significantly diminish in cost after two years of restructuring and teacher training.

Stewart says she has no plans to kill the partnership effort. And she says Lynch’s lockout of her from union offices, coupled with interruptions stemming from the political bout, is hampering her ability to mount opposition to Renaissance 2010. “Every time we sit down to try and have a meeting, someone calls and says, ‘Guess what?'”

AFT investigation

Lynch’s bid to retain the presidency in a new, mail-in election scheduled for August 23 through Sept. 13 must first survive the AFT’s investigation.

At the request of Stewart, the AFT sent a three-person committee to Chicago on July 22-23 to weigh the allegations of fraud and examine the legality of the canvassing committee’s decision to invalidate the election, which Stewart won by just 566 votes. A ruling is expected in early August.

The investigation committee is chaired by Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, and includes Lorretta Johnson, co-president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, and Ted Kirsch, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

With the AFT involved, some bright spots have emerged for Stewart. Kirsch is known as an old-guard union chief, which bodes well for the bread-and-butter candidate. And the organization’s newly elected president, Edward McElroy, said he believes Stewart should act as president while the election results are investigated.

It’s not clear if Lynch, who questions the AFT’s jurisdiction in the matter, will relinquish control if it sides with Stewart. But one union insider questions how Lynch would surmount the bad publicity if she chose to keep fighting.

“We don’t see how the AFT can substitute its judgment for the canvassing committee’s judgment,” says Lynch. “If they do, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“I would hope the committee will be fair,” says Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association and a well-known proponent of teacher-led reforms championed by Lynch. “The fact that Randi Weingarten is chair is inordinately important. She is a trained attorney, thoughtful, knowledgeable and fair.”

To contact John Myers, call (312) 673-3874 or send an e-mail to myers@catalyst-chicago.org.