New leadership shifts union focus

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With the new leadership finally in control of the Chicago Teachers Union, a wave of political firings leaves in doubt where the union stands on teacher leadership in school reform.

Among the 18 union employees who resigned or were fired during newly installed President Marilyn Stewart’s first days in office were Allen Bearden, director of the Quest Center, and the coordinators of the union’s so-called partnership schools—both signature ventures of Stewart’s predecessor, Deborah Lynch.

“You surround yourself with like ideas, goals and visions,” says Stewart, who promised teachers she would shift the union’s priorities from school reform to frontline member services. She tapped Carlene Lutz, a union veteran who until recently tended to bedrock professional development programs such as teacher recertification and lane placement, to temporarily supervise Quest Center.

Meanwhile, Bearden supporters say his vision will be missed and relationships with funders and School Board insiders will have to be re-established. Already, his firing has jeopardized the release of a major grant for a joint union-School Board program to prepare teachers for National Board Certification.

This summer, as the union battled over election results, the Chicago Community Trust temporarily froze the $740,000 grant, a practice the foundation employs when new leaders take control. Those funds will be released if Stewart and the School Board agree to commit enough resources to the program, says Trust spokeswoman Jennifer Jobrack.

Stewart, who says she’s fully committed to the program, met with the Trust in late August to discuss the grant. However, the grant remains frozen pending talks with board officials, and neither party will comment on Bearden’s firing.

The dismissal clearly surprised some in the philanthropic community. “Allen’s capability to work under varying union leadership … was admirable,” says The Chicago Public Education Fund President Janet Knupp, noting that Bearden had worked under three administrations of union leadership.

Teachers who earned National Board Certification under Bearden’s tutelage are particularly strong supporters. Victor Harbison, a nationally certified teacher at Chicago Vocational Career Academy, wants to petition the union to reinstate Bearden.

“When [Lynch] lost, I thought, ‘So what, what’s the difference?'” Harbison says. In less than a week, the Stewart administration “showed me the difference.”

Bearden, however, says it’s over and he will not contest his firing. He recently accepted a position at the University of Illinois at Chicago to work on teacher quality issues.

Quest Center ‘bloated’

Stewart charges the Quest Center was “bloated” and defends firings as a move to streamline administration, not wipe out teacher leadership initiatives.

Yet, her decision to reduce the number of partnership schools coordinators casts additional doubt on her support of such programs.

Last year, Lynch negotiated a two-year deal with the board for the union to oversee reforms at 10 failing schools in lieu of them closing. Though most of the schools made progress, three were consolidated this spring due to low enrollment.

Marc Wigler, a former teacher who has experience facilitating Success For All, the reading reform program in place at four partnership elementary schools, was tapped to replace the two outgoing coordinators. However, the other partnership schools are using different reform models, and outgoing coordinator Martin McGreal says the two high schools will need more intensive support this year.

Wigler says he is not yet sure how he will manage partnership schools. However, he insists that the union will support the effort and may hire an additional facilitator.

Meanwhile, Stewart hired four new field representatives to handle contract enforcement, and downsized union staff by seven positions.

She also hired several administrators who worked for former CTU President Thomas Reece, another move that drew ire from detractors.

Lynch toppled Reece in 2001, charging his administration mishandled union funds and caved to various School Board demands. Stewart, who heads the remnants of Reece’s party, distanced herself from his administration on the campaign trail.

Back on board at the union are Pam Massarsky, previously recording secretary under Reece and now a legislative consultant; Gail Koffman, former director of field representatives, now a grievance consultant; and Larry Poltrock, who returns as general counsel after directing Stewart’s legal affairs in the contested election.

Stewart defends those picks as the right mix of experience and expertise—qualities, she says, that are needed as the union tries to reorganize quickly after this summer’s drawn-out scrap over alleged voter fraud.

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