Deborah Lynch and the making of an upset

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The school day in Chicago had broken hours earlier. By late afternoon, the challengers to the long-time leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union had gathered in the union’s executive board room at the Merchandise Mart to await the results. The candidates and some of their supporters chatted nervously as a rumor spread that they hadn’t done as well as they thought.

Led by Deborah Lynch, the PACT caucus (for ProActive Chicago Teachers & School Employees) had put up candidates twice before. This day in May turned out to be their moment. At 4:54 p.m. on Friday the 25th, Al Korach, a retired teacher and member of the CTU canvassing committee, strode across the hall from union offices. “I am pleased to announce that a big change has taken place,” he told the PACT candidates and supporters. “PACT has won.” Cheers went up, and applause filled the board room.

The vote totals showed that Lynch, PACT’s nominee for president, and most of the PACT slate had swept into office. “I felt euphoria,” says Lynch, who has since shortened her name from Deborah Lynch-Walsh. “I was also humbled that we had the trust of our members.”

Lynch immediately held a press conference, as incumbent president Thomas Reece and his ticket stayed closeted out of sight, nursing their disappointment and letting Lynch have her moment.

Later, some 200 PACT members converged on Penelope, a small cafe at Ashland and Jackson, for a victory party. “It was joyous beyond belief,” says Debby Pope, a Schurz High School delegate who is now external communications director. “People were crying. Fifty-year-old men were hoisting other 50-year-old men on their shoulders.”

To her fans, Lynch, a slim, intense woman of 49, represents a new take on teacher unionism, someone as passionate about professional improvement and curriculum as pay and benefits. “Debbie is a terrific example of the teacher-union leader of the future,” says Adam Urbanski, long-time president of the Rochester Teachers Association and the grand old man of union progressives. “Chicago is in for a pleasant surprise.”

Lynch says, “People will see a much more dynamic, much more interactive union. It’s my goal to make CTU members proud of their organization and more involved in it.”

Some observers, however, take such sentiments to mean the outspoken Lynch may return the CTU to its combative, pre-Reece days. “If she’s going to be successful, she’s going to have to reach accommodations,” says one well-placed Board of Education figure, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “If she’s going to be a warrior and fight management, then the union is going to fail.”

From her youth, Lynch has displayed both a devotion to teaching and a certain assuredness. The oldest of eight children—six boys and two girls—Lynch grew up in the Mt. Greenwood neighborhood of Chicago and then in Oak Lawn. Her father, now deceased, worked as an import-export salesman, and her mother was a housewife. “Debbie was a very agreeable girl, pleasant and outgoing, with lots of friends,” says her mother, Veronica Lynch. “She knew her own mind. She was sure of herself most of the time.”

When she was 13, Lynch found her calling. That summer her mother noticed that her daughter was bored, and she suggested she peddle her bike over to Park Lawn School and Activity Center, a facility for the developmentally disabled, and volunteer. “I fell in love with this autistic boy,” says Lynch. “What appealed to me was the challenge of trying to reach a child. And there were the circumstances of these particular kids, the heartbreak in some of them.” After graduating from Mother McCauley High School, she attended Western Illinois University, where she took a double major in special and elementary education and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1973.

Her first job was instructing learning-disabled students at Barnard School in Beverly, where she credits her teacher-assistant with showing her the ropes. “There were no other supports, and no mentoring,” she says. After a year and a half, she took over a TMH (trainable mentally handicapped) classroom at Whistler School, at 115th and south Ada. “I stayed with the same kids for five years,” she says. “We became like family, and I watched them grow.” After earning a master’s in special education from Chicago State University, she taught children with behavior disorders at Evers School, at 98th and south Lowe.

For a couple years, Lynch was a professional-development coordinator for a special education cooperative serving 55 suburban school districts, and then, in 1982, she signed on part time at the CTU to run a graduate-studies program. She was finishing a doctorate at the University of Illinois at Chicago when she ran into a roadblock in the form of professor Bruce McPherson.

Lynch’s thesis concerned teachers and powerlessness, and McPherson stood as the lone holdout vote on her review committee. “I cast a ‘no’ vote because of the work she had done,” says McPherson, a co-founder of the Golden Apple Foundation, who has now retired. “I sensed she was bright, but her thesis fell far short in grappling with questions and analyzing data.” Over seven hours one Saturday during the summer of 1983, McPherson sat with Lynch in a UIC classroom and hectored her. “Where are you in this material,” he yelled. “I can’t find you.”

“I was ruthless, but she is tough,” says McPherson. “She was willing to swallow her ego and do her best.” Lynch, who did receive her doctorate the following year, calls her go-round with McPherson, who remains a friend, “a powerful lesson in critical thinking.”

Critical thinking turned into Lynch’s focus when, in September 1983, she took a job in the educational issues department with the American Federation of Teachers in Washington, D.C. She invented and operated a week-long course in which teachers were trained to school other teachers in their districts in Socratic-type thought. “The project was Debbie’s baby, and she worked very hard on it,” says Eugenia Kemble, her supervisor at the time and now executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, an AFT-affiliated think tank named for the union’s late president. “She felt strongly that union members needed expertise to do their jobs.”

While Lynch was away in Washington, school reform was instituted in the Chicago schools, most significantly through the establishment of site-based management. In reform’s wake, John Kotsakis, CTU President Jacqueline Vaughn’s assistant for educational issues, explored with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation the idea of a union-backed institute on curriculum and school structure. Kotsakis introduced Lynch to Peter Martinez, senior program officer at MacArthur, and he came away impressed. “She was energetic and creative,” Martinez recalls. “I thought she could get teachers turned on.”

In 1992, MacArthur pledged $1.2 million over three years to launch the Quest Center, and Lynch became its director. Under her, the center staged an annual issues conference, featuring speakers involved in novel teacher projects in New York, Cincinnati and Toledo. It also funded 50 projects, each with a $3,000 stipend, that fostered such concepts as small schools, multi-age grouping of students and performance-based assessment methods.

Lynch had her disappointments, for example, when the faculty at Taft High School balked at the principal’s dream of carving Taft into small schools. But she delighted in initiatives such as the alternative Foundations School, launched by rebel teachers.

“Debbie said, ‘We will support you if you can find a place to locate,'” says Lynn Cherkasky-Davis, a Foundations School founder. “Well, she lobbied the board to find us a place.” Foundations first took up residence on the third floor of Price School in Oakland, where, says Cherkasky-Davis, “The $3,000 we got from Quest went to buy a laminator and a professional-development library.”

Just as Lynch’s tenure at the Quest Center was beginning, her younger sister, Barb, was killed, a victim of domestic violence. Lynch was then single—an early marriage to John Walsh, an electrician she had met while studying in Ireland, had failed—and yet she took custody of her sister’s three young children, two girls and a boy, all under 6.

“Becoming and being their mom has been one of the most wonderful things that has ever happened to me,” she wrote in a memoir, “Labor of Love,” that she had published last year. The union allowed Lynch to work three, 10-hour days at the Quest Center so she could fulfill her new role as a mother.

At the CTU, Lynch drew close to Kotsakis, whom she calls “an intellectual and a visionary.” But Kotsakis, an introspective figure who had run for the CTU presidency in 1972 and lost, “was not popular among the staff,” says one union stalwart. “You didn’t work with John, and you didn’t work with Debbie because she was with John.”

In January 1994, Jacqui Vaughn died, at age 58, after a battle with breast cancer. Then, in September, Kotsakis died, at age 55, of a heart attack, leaving Lynch truly bereft.

Reece, a former Disney Magnet School science teacher who had been Vaughn’s vice president, quickly succeeded her, and Lynch bided her time: “I was going to see what came next, but nothing came next. The excitement and the speaking in the schools disappeared. There was a de-emphasis on educational issues, but there was no activity on any front.”

It disheartened Lynch when a new reform law, enacted in 1995 by the Republican-controlled legislature and with Mayor Daley’s tacit support, ripped away the union’s collective bargaining rights on issues such as class size, charter schools and staffing.

Lynch decided to move on: “I had a conversation with Tom Reece. He said he was sorry to see me go. I said, ‘I want to go to the classroom and apply the lessons I have learned.’ And so I left.”

Like hundreds of other job-hungry teachers, Lynch found her next opportunity by trooping to a Chicago Public Schools job fair at Malcolm X College. Fred Kravarik, principal of Marquette School in Chicago Lawn, told Lynch he had carved out some small schools within his facility (since abandoned). Intrigued, Lynch hired on as a learning disabilities resource teacher at Marquette.

“I enjoyed my six years at Marquette, though my first impression was that not a lot had changed in spite of the reform movement,” she says. “Here I was teaching seven or eight kids at a time in a closet.”

Quickly Lynch was elected to chair the Professional Personnel Advisory Committee (PPAC), a committee of teachers that advises the local school council on educational matters. Lynch has always had misgivings about LSCs because of the limited role of teachers. “You’re talking about only two seats out of 11 for the teachers, and then one other seat is occupied by your boss,” she says. “I don’t care for the model.” When Lynch brought the suggestion for a new reading program to the Marquette LSC, she says, “Nothing happened. After two years of feeling that our input wasn’t being heeded, we abolished the PPAC.”

In principal Kravarik’s view, the PPAC chose not to fill its positions. “The PPAC isn’t dead, it’s sitting idle,” he says. During the time Lynch was chair, he says, he and the LSC were most intent on relieving crowding at Marquette, which has swelled as high as 2,800 youngsters.

Reading scores at Marquette were low—in 1996, only 23 percent of students read at or above national norms on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. “We had to do something before the school landed on probation,” says Lynch. While at the AFT, she had come across a program called Success for All, the invention of Robert Slavin and his wife Nancy Madden, two researchers at John Hopkins University. She now investigated it further and wanted it deeply for Marquette.

Success for All is used by 1,800 schools across the country but only five in Chicago. The program focuses on reading, requiring daily 90-minute sessions in small groups, which are made possible by the use of all teachers in a school, including the gym and art teacher. Students are grouped by ability, tested frequently and reassigned as their ability level changes. Instruction attends to critical thinking as well as phonics.

The Success for All organization won’t go into a school without significant teacher buy-in, specifically a “yes” vote by 80 percent of the faculty. At Marquette, teachers initially gave it only a 72 percent vote. “I thought, Oh my God, after all that gnashing of teeth,” Lynch recalls. Undeterred, she persuaded the program’s administrators to allow the teachers in the Marquette annex, which alone houses 600 youngsters, to vote among themselves; on that vote, the program passed. Lynch directed Success for All in the annex for a couple years before returning to an 8th-grade classroom.

The reading scores at Marquette have inched up; today 34 percent of its students are reading at or above national norms, though Kravarik says that factors besides Success for All have played a role in the increase, notably an extended school day and gifted groupings. The school has not tracked scores at the annex separately, but Eileen Scanlan, the school’s current Success for All coordinator, says that the 59 students who have been in the program for three years—students at Marquette are highly transient—made an average annual gain of 1.5 years on the Iowas.

Scanlan voices admiration for Lynch: “She’s a fantastic person who is persistent if she believes in a cause.” And though Kravarik and Lynch had their differences—he comes off somewhat poorly in her memoir—he is likewise an admirer. “Debbie is a very good teacher, dedicated to children, and she did all that was required of her,” says Kravarik. “The staff loved her, believing she had their best interests at heart.”

Lynch had barely set foot in Marquette when she convened a dinner meeting at the Como Inn for teachers she thought might “want a different kind of union.” It was October 1995; Mayor Richard M. Daley’s new school team was rapidly announcing programs, but, as far as she could see, the union president wasn’t at the table, and there was no union agenda. “We had had these two deaths [of Vaughn and Kotsakis], and now somebody had to do something,” she says.

Thirty compatriots showed up for the dinner, and so began what turned into PACT, a rump group to oppose the entrenched United Progressive Caucus (UPC), in power for 30 years and now led by Reece.

PACT’s first campaign against UPC, which took place in 1996, was a slog. “I remember Debbie standing in front of the old Bismarck Hotel, where the union delegates were meeting,” says Joann Podkul, a social studies teacher at Bowen High School and a Lynch ally. “It was freezing cold, and they wouldn’t let her inside. There she stood, looking perfect in her little high heels, and they treated her like a mutineer.” Lynch and the PACT ticket garnered 27 percent of the vote.

But PACT kept meeting monthly in a side room at Penelope restaurant, chosen for its central location on the Near West Side. “Rain or shine, even on days when schools were closed, people showed up,” says Lynch. “It was a small group, but we stayed alive.”

In 1997, Lynch wrote then-Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas a letter advocating small schools, ruing the isolation of teachers and slamming the Board of Education’s attempts to take over low-performing facilities and “reconstitute” them by, if need be, firing personnel. She received no response. Vallas, now running for governor, says he didn’t reply because “the issues were being addressed, and I didn’t want to be campaign fodder for her to use against Tom Reece.”

In 1998, as Vallas’ programs increasingly angered high school teachers, Lynch captured 42 percent of the vote. PACT contested the results with the U.S. Department of Labor, charging that the ballots, under UPC control, may have been mishandled by being moved from site to site before being counted. “There was a lack of safeguards to prevent cheating,” says Lynch. But the challenge was turned down.

Despite losing overall, PACT captured all six high school seats on the CTU executive board. Soon, these representatives grew dismayed. “Mr. Reece would allow us to speak at meetings,” recalls Sarah Loftus, a Kelvyn Park art teacher. “He’d say, ‘Well, we’ll look into that.’ But we never heard anything back.”

Counters Reece, “I didn’t ignore them. There just weren’t a lot of others who agreed with them. The meetings were democratically run.

A change in union rules pushed the next election back to 2001, which Lynch and her team pondered as a last hurrah. “We were getting old doing this,” says Howard Heath, a math and computer science teacher at Lane Tech, who is 49. “Debbie and I knew this would be our final shot. We wouldn’t be doing this in our 50s.”

When it became clear that Lynch was going to run again, Kravarik took his 8th-grade teacher aside. “I don’t care about your motivation, but are you able to make a commitment to the kids here?” the principal asked her.

“You will never even know I’m running,” Lynch replied.

“To be honest,” says Kravarik, “that was true.”

This time around, several factors weighed in PACT’s favor. The increasing emphasis on standardized tests had bred dissatisfaction, as had the raises in the most recent four-year contract (of 3, 2, 2, and 2 percent), which PACT had opposed. And union activists still smarted over the CTU’s lost bargaining rights— though, as both Reece and Vallas point out, the School Board had adopted as policy major work rules that the union previously had negotiated, such as class size limits.

Further, while the board had backed off reconstitution, it instituted a similar “take-over” approach, called intervention, at five high schools. And just as the PACT campaign got under way, Vallas announced a new improvement program aimed at the city’s 200 lowest-performing elementary schools. The Comprehensive Approach to Student Achievement (CASA) did not include sanctions, but, even so, it made elementary schools nervous.

The perception that Reece, Vallas and Chico were too chummy held sway. “Vallas and his team put things in place, and the union wasn’t at the table,” says Lynch. “Tom Reece felt that improving schools was the mayor’s job, not the union’s job.”

Reece defends his being conciliatory: “There’s nothing wrong with working to make things better, and not being inflammatory. We [he and board officials] had a relationship where they would listen to us. I personally feel I did the right thing for the members.”

Vallas says that Reece, working behind the scenes, convinced him to replace reconstitution with re-engineering, a change process that involves teachers. When the Vallas administration soon turned to intervention, recounts Reece,”I said, ‘Don’t do it.’ But they disagreed and did it anyway.”

PACT began its campaign last January, paying special attention to large elementary schools. Led by Lynch, PACT candidates campaigned before and after the academic day. Fliers reached schools weekly, promising to cut class size, to reduce the $700-a-year (for teachers) union dues and to “negotiate a decent contract.”

Substance, the newspaper edited by teacher-activist George Schmidt, covered the campaign heavily, gradually pumping its circulation to an apex of 31,000 in May, more than triple the usual run. “We wanted to see the leadership change,” remarks Schmidt, who had himself run three times for union president, “to put a lie to the idea that Daley and Vallas had perpetuated a miraculous turnaround of the Chicago Public Schools.”

In early March, PACT held a fund-raiser at Beverly Woods restaurant, 115th and Western. When 300 supporters showed up, Lynch sensed the tide had turned in her favor. She believes that various developments in the spring further swelled the waters—the advent of CASA, a 1 percent salary bonus in April (“a deliberate attempt to influence the outcome,” she says) and endorsements of Reece by the Chicago Sun-Times and by Vallas.

“I said Reece did a good job,” says Vallas of remarks he made on WBBM-AM’s “At Issue” program. “When people do a good job, I’m going to acknowledge it.”

But the endorsements fed the image of Reece as an administration insider. “If you want to win an election, it makes good sense to talk about the other side sleeping with the enemy,” notes one prominent CTU leader.

Reece took the approach that cooperation had paid off: “I tried to sell the real effects of a cooperative relationship. The schools were getting better; the members were making more.”

The UPC slate drummed away at the fact that Lynch and company had rallied against the current contract. It also argued that it had settled various grievances for back pay, had gained benefits for members, and had rid teachers—and the city—of the contract uncertainty that persisted even after the last teacher strike, in 1987. A win by the bumptious Lynch, it was implied, could mean a backward drift to labor strife.

The UPC approached the election with some complacency. “They had representatives in the schools, and their literature was out,” says a person close to the UPC slate. “They thought they were in.” The UPC family also was hampered by illness; cancer afflicted both lobbyist David Peterson, who is married to recording secretary Pamelyn Massarsky, and the daughter of Norma White, the incumbent vice president. “Tom lost his team to illness, and he couldn’t campaign,” says Vallas.

Looking back, Reece cites the burdens of office: “We probably didn’t get out much. Idealistically you’d like to be in the school every day, but you can’t do it because of your other responsibilities.”

Reece and Lynch delivered campaign speeches at the May CTU House of Delegates meeting. The election was held on May 18. The paper ballots were counted at Data Service Solutions, a direct-mail company in suburban Plainfield that sidelines in tabulations. Lou Pyster, who served as the PACT observer of the count, watched as the piles for the insurgents rose higher than those for UPC. Over dinner one night, he told Lynch, “It looks like you’re going to be the president.”

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Lynch took 57 percent of the total vote, including 72 percent of the high school vote and 52 percent of the elementary school vote. The PACT slate captured 38 of 46 positions on the CTU executive board, losing only those representing aides and assistants.

The campaign cost PACT $20,000-$5,000 of it put up by the candidates. Lynch pitched in $1,000.

To Lynch, her win is a verdict on Reece’s stance vis-a-vis the Vallas administration: “Some of what Vallas did was good, and some of it was bad. Reece never said anything in the face of teachers having problems. This was an election on Tom Reece’s silence.”

Nearly everyone assumes Lynch will be noisier than her predecessor, yet even her advisers suggest she must proceed carefully. “The 43 percent who didn’t vote for Debbie have to learn that she is the president but that their union hasn’t changed so radically that they don’t recognize it,” says Jackie Gallagher, assistant to Reece for communications and now a CTU consultant.

Lynch is being paid $104,000 a year to administer an organization of 33,000 members, 24,000 of them teachers and the rest clerks, teacher assistants and retirees. Her annual budget is $24 million, with $6 million of that going as dues to the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the American Federation of Teachers and the AFL/CIO. Lynch says she expects to cut expenses to the point where the union can reduce dues by 5 percent.

Her top priorities are higher raises, smaller classes and relaxing the Chicago residency requirement for board employees. (“She’ll have to deal with the mayor on that [last] one,” warns a former high-ranking board official.)

Meanwhile, Lynch is skeptical of alternative certification methods that, she says, “could water down academic standards.” One long-deferred dream is to launch a fully accredited, union-affiliated graduate school, with Jacqueline Vaughn’s name on it.

In general, Lynch would like to see teachers assume more decision-making authority at both the board and school levels. Her model is Saturn Corp., the car company where employees help make decisions. “Labor-management cooperation has a bad connotation in this city, but the union needs to be viewed as a partner in teaching and learning,” she says.

Before Vallas left office in June, the two Western Illinois University alumni had a cordial breakfast at a South Loop coffee shop. Twice in July, Lynch sat down with incoming CEO Arne Duncan and some top associates, once at the Metropolitan Club in the Sears Tower and then at the law office of outside board negotiator Jim Franczek. The gatherings were friendly, by all accounts, though Lynch pressed Duncan to give up on intervention.

At the August School Board meeting, intervention was retooled to bring teachers into program planning. While staff evaluation is still part of intervention, staff training is now the centerpiece. Even so, Lynch says she is disappointed that the the board moved unilaterally; she adds that the union will present its own plan for helping failing schools. Of Lynch, Duncan says, “She’s super-smart and really committed, and I like the fact that she comes straight from the classroom.” As to whether her arrival marks a break in smooth, Reece-era relations with the board, Duncan says, “There’s a lot of common ground. Look, there will be differences between myself and Deborah Lynch—and myself and my wife, for that matter—but there are huge areas where we can work together.”

In Springfield, Lynch says, “Our immediate priority is to win back bargaining rights. We’re the only union in the state—and as far as I know in the nation—that can’t bargain over class size.” But the union’s prospects are problematic. Republicans currently control two of three power points, the Senate and the governorship. And Mayor Daley had called for union concessions even before the General Assembly stripped the CTU of many powers.

Lynch also will face a thorny situation with the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT), where Reece remains president. “We should work together,” says Reece. “Otherwise, we’re going to spend all our time fighting.” Lynch, who has cool relations with Reece, suggests that a move is afoot on the IFT executive committee to dump him. “I’m not going anywhere,” he insists. CTU members make up 45 percent of IFT membership.

Lynch lives in southwest suburban Orland Park with her three children (the oldest now 13), her husband, Bill Byrne, the operating engineer at Marquette, and his daughter, a college sophomore. Sarah Loftus, the CTU’s internal communications director, calls her friend Lynch “a career woman much like Rosalind Russell, but when she’s home, she’s Mom—she walks the dogs.” Lynch herself won’t discuss her family—”that’s off-limits”—although she mentions her involvement with Bella Charities, a small philanthropy dedicated to her late sister Barb that fights domestic violence. “My sister was a great role model,” says Lynch, “wonderful and strong.”