Closings and turnarounds likely to become hot-button union election issue

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As she has done every year since becoming president of the Chicago Teachers Union, Marilyn Stewart vowed once again to fight school turnarounds and closures.

But she’s been unable to win a moratorium on these actions. In this union election year, Stewart’s failure to do so is sure to become an issue. She also will spend time arguing that she did all she could.  

Stewart’s three-year term, her second, comes to an end this year. Two opposition groups, one lead by former CTU President Deborah Lynch and one new one, are ramping up the rhetoric, with a heavy emphasis on Renaissance 2010 and school closings.

On Tuesday, CEO Ron Huberman announced he was closing or turnaround 14 schools.  

Lynch, who served as the union’s president from 2001 to 2004 and is chair of the ProActive Chicago Teachers and School Employees (PACT) caucus, says that Stewart should be doing more to stem the flood of closures and turnarounds. 

She says that the five-year contract the union approved in 2007 should not have been signed without a moratorium. Under her leadership, the union turned out hundreds of members to protest school closings at Board of Education meetings.

“We screamed bloody murder,” she says. They also were able to get former CEO Arne Duncan to sign a pledge to stop closing and turning around schools.

Kenzo Shibata, communications secretary for the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), used the same words to describe Stewart’s actions.

“In the initial round of school closings, Marilyn Stewart’s leadership would tell teachers to spruce up their resumes,” Shibata says. “They’ve had six years to oppose Renaissance 2010, and all we’re really hearing is lip service.”

But Chicago Teachers Union spokeswoman Rosemaria Genova says that school closures and turnarounds, by law, are not subject to negotiation. and that the union has been doing “everything we could have done in terms of saving jobs.” She also raised the possibility that a change in leadership could weaken the union’s position.

“It’s not exactly the best time to be in an election for union members,” Genova says. “You need stability at the union, so you can continue to fight the board.”

Genoa also said that Stewart’s meetings with district officials behind closed doors last year played a significant role in CPS’s decision to back down from six proposed turnarounds and closures. She says there were rumors that 30 schools were going to be turned around or closed this year, but the fact that only 14 were announced shows district officials are aware of the union’s concerns.

Stewart plans to use a similar strategy to make her case against the closings this year, Genova says. Union leadership is particularly concerned about the potential loss of three elementary schools – Deneen, Gillespie, and McCorkle – from the CPS-CTU merit pay experiment, the Teacher Advancement Program.

Stewart is also visiting affected schools to speak with union members, and the union is analyzing performance and capacity data to verify that schools meet the district’s stated turnaround and closure criteria.

At the last House of Delegates meeting, Stewart asked union members to submit suggestions for mobilizing teachers against the closings, Genova says.

Even so, flashy mass protest politics are just not Stewart’s style, she says.

“Through strategic conversations and private negotiations from one leader to another, things can happen,” Genova says. “People need to know how upset the public is, but it also makes a difference when you have the data and the relationships to get things done.”

But Lynch says that under Stewart, teachers have lost ground. In 2003, the CTU got then-CEO Arne Duncan to agree on a moratorium on closures. He signed a memorandum of understanding, pledging not to close schools without giving them targeted resources and extra help for at least a year. But when Stewart defeated Lynch in 2004, Stewart “ripped up” the agreement, Lynch says.

“The current union leadership failed to mobilize the membership as, year after year, dozens of schools were closed, turned around, reconstituted,” Lynch says. Lynch is also critical of Stewart’s efforts to help displaced teachers – including plans to negotiate early retirement benefits for some of them.