Politics strain board, union relations

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When Schools CEO announced a new reading initiative last August, Chicago Teachers Union President Deborah Lynch, then newly elected, found out about it in the next day’s newspapers. Not exactly what Lynch had in mind when she was on the campaign trail calling for teachers to have more say in shaping CPS educational priorities.

At their monthly meeting, Lynch let Duncan know she wasn’t happy. After that, he seemed more willing to open the lines of communication to keep the union involved when making new plans, Lynch says.

Since then, Lynch has added a second monthly meeting with CPS officials, including Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins, about educational issues. Lynch and Watkins also co-chair one of the committees for the CPS Human Capital Initiative, a study group exploring career options for teachers.

But then it happened again. In April, Duncan held a press conference to announce that three schools would be closed—a plan that Lynch found out about just an hour before it went public.

“So much for partnerships,” Lynch fumes. “Any trust that had developed over this short period of time has certainly been shaken. What they did and how they did it has been a shock.”

Many observers say the surprise announcement was not an oversight, but was actually Mayor Richard M. Daley letting Lynch know who’s the boss. In a battle for power—particularly in light of upcoming contract negotiations, Daley flexed his muscle. While Duncan and Lynch agree on much that needs to be done to improve public schools, their tough public stances put a tremendous strain on efforts to cooperate.

One year into their respective tenures, Lynch and Duncan are at an important crossroads. Contract negotiations between the Board of Education and the CTU loom next fall, and the success or failure of those talks may determine the fate of their administrations. But before the parties even gather around the bargaining table, the political maneuvering and behind-the-scenes wrangling threaten to poison the water.

Upcoming contract talks will be strained, says Lynch. “Any bargaining needs to be done in good faith,” she says. “Now, any trust that existed has been eroded.”

Teacher groups were upset, too. “This is the kind of crap we had before collective bargaining when the board did whatever it wanted,” says James Dougherty, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. (CTU comprises 40 percent the IFT’s membership.) “Things like this have consequences. This rupture makes it more difficult for the president of the CTU to convince her members to trust the Board of Education.”

Duncan downplays the rift. “I appreciate Debbie’s concerns, and I understand them,” he says. “There are going to be areas where we agree to disagree.”

Agreeing to agree

Until April 10, Lynch and Duncan had been making strides in forging a cooperative relationship. Lynch, who had promised the CTU membership she would push for teachers to be included in education decision-making, had been gaining ground.

The existing contract calls for union leaders to meet with Duncan once a month to discuss contract issues and problem solving. By early fall, Lynch had secured a second monthly meeting on educational issues.

The meetings have produced more than talk. Lynch cites two examples of actions taken as a result the extra meetings: CTU and the School Board plan to co-sponsor teacher leadership workshops this summer, and they consolidated their two support programs for teachers pursuing National Board Certification.

Lynch also recruited Eason-Watkins for the board of trustees of the union’s new Jacqueline B. Vaughn Graduate School for Teacher Leadership, slated to open next year.

One of the first issues Lynch asked Duncan to address was ending intervention, a punitive policy that penalized teachers but did little to include them in school improvement. In meeting with Duncan last summer, “it was the first word out of my mouth,” she recalls.

By fall, Duncan had pulled the teeth out of intervention, and later recommended changing the policy to include academic benchmarks and ongoing professional development for teachers. Duncan may have been inclined to drop intervention, but Lynch’s prodding helped, says social studies teacher Robert Mankiewicz of Bowen High School.

“She was instrumental in helping to change it so it isn’t this oppressive thing it was last year,” said Mankiewicz. “Intervention isn’t gone [but] the most oppressive, punitive portions are gone.”

Lynch is “low key but persistent,” says CTU delegate Brian Sullivan, a 3rd grade teacher at Fernwood Elementary. Sullivan says her efforts are one reason why Duncan has to be more attentive to the union. “Lynch is openly putting his feet to the fire,” he says.

Bargaining rights

In one sense, Lynch picked the current fight. Weeks earlier, she made good on her promise to try to regain the bargaining rights the union lost in the 1995 school reform law backed by the mayor. The law, passed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly—with Daley’s tacit approval—prohibits the CTU (the only teachers union to which it applies) from bargaining over a range of topics, including privatization of services, layoffs, class size, charter schools, staffing and the academic calendar. The CTU has been trying to reverse the law in Springfield ever since it was introduced, with little success—until this year.

When the law was first passed, then-CTU president Thomas Reece signed a four-year contract before going to court to get the law overturned, Lynch recalls. “The judge said, ‘How can you come to us when you just negotiated a four-year contract,'” she says.

At its February House of Delegates meeting, CTU drew a line in the sand, passing a resolution stating that “a poor climate exists for entry into a multi-year contract” if bargaining rights are not restored.

When the board went to Springfield this winter, it argued for retaining authority over collective bargaining issues so it could move ahead with school reform. But for the first time since the union lost those rights, a bill calling for the restoration of CTU bargaining rights made it out of committee and garnered enough support to pass the House if put to a vote.

“When the mayor’s people saw it could pass, they asked if we’d hold off, and we agreed,” says CTU lobbyist Jackie Gallagher. Instead the union created a “shell” bill with the intention of working out specific language later.

A day after Duncan announced the school closings, Lynch shot a letter over to the mayor, whose key aides were meeting with a coalition of unions (including the CTU) to write a compromise bill restoring the teacher’s bargaining rights.

The mayor agreed to “bargain over the bargaining bill,” says Lynch. “But certainly [closing schools without informing CTU] makes us wonder about the timing of all this.”

Since the union cannot bargain over staffing, the board is free to close schools without union approval. About 100 teachers and support staff at the three schools will have 10 months to find new jobs in the system or be terminated.

Teachers are in a “state of shock” about the closings, says delegate Sullivan, a Lynch supporter. When the contract expires, teachers are not likely to consider a long-term contract if they don’t have their bargaining rights back, he predicts. “It’s difficult to negotiate when there are so many issues you can’t negotiate about.”

The Principals and Administrators Association sides with the board against restoring union bargaining rights, citing a loss of staffing authority. Principal Carmen Sanchez of Irving Park Middle gives two examples: losing the right to hire summer school teachers based on “who are most qualified” instead of seniority; and losing the flexibility to assign teachers to grade levels as needed.

Contract negotiations

Now, the union is surveying its members to compile a list of up to 75 bargaining proposals that will be ready to present to the board in June. Pay is likely to top the list of negotiation priorities; but, projected state funding cuts are forcing CPS to look for ways to decrease its budget.

“Salary continues to be important,” Lynch says. “The system isn’t going to get and keep the teachers we have if high school salaries are the lowest in the Chicago area. Elementary pay ranks about 33rd in [Cook county].”

Teachers want more than a 3 percent raise, which is what they got annually in the last contract, says Larry Vigon, the union delegate at Von Steuben High School. “I’d like to see 5 percent the first year,” says Portage Park delegate William Weiss, who also wants more choices for health insurance benefits.

Another challenge for Lynch is controlling internal opposition. She won last spring’s election with a decisive 57 percent of the vote, toppling a regime that had been in power for several decades.

Observers say the CTU House of Delegates appears evenly split between Lynch allies and supporters of former President Thomas Reece. Early on, monthly meetings were often contentious. “There’s a huge rivalry between old and new,” says one Reece supporter from a North Side elementary school. “There is so much tension, I go home from the meetings feeling horrible each time.”

Much of the “yelling and screaming” has passed, says Portage Park delegate Weiss. Lately, there have been fewer interruptions. “[Lynch] started tightening things up, [telling delegates], ‘This is the way it’s going to be and lets get to the issues,'” Weiss says.

Still, Reece supporters are already lining up for the next CTU election in spring of 2004. “[Lynch] promised big raises and better insurance without paying more money,” says delegate Ted Dallas of Wells High School. “Now she’s saying times are tough. If [she doesn’t deliver], she’s going to be a one-term president.”

Another Reece supporter says teachers at her North Side school are “terrified” Lynch is going to lead the union into a strike. “I’m definitely concerned about a strike—I think she thinks a strike would be great,” says the teacher, who did not want to be identified.

Lynch declines to get specific, but she dismisses the idea that she’s pushing for a teachers strike. “That was campaign rhetoric. Obviously, no one wants a strike. At the same time, no union leadership would ever say they wouldn’t strike because it’s your most powerful weapon.”

Anthony Bryk, executive director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, is hoping that the rift over school closings doesn’t get in the way as the CTU and the School Board work on the contract and other partnership opportunities.

“I hope this is a place where they agree to disagree,” says Bryk. “This really shouldn’t become the hill that we all die on.”