School & District Management

Long Passage

By Julie Blair — June 05, 2002 24 min read
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The young kindergarten teacher teeters precariously on a chair to hang up student artwork outside her classroom door when she spots the president of the Chicago Teachers Union hustling down the hall of her South Side school.

Deborah Lynch wants to push Chicago's teachers' union in new directions. Some union members don't want to follow.

Jeanine T. Saflarski stops what she’s doing, jumps off her perch, and tumbles into the union leader’s outstretched arms.

It is only moments before the two begin to talk shop.

“Look at these,” Saflarski commands Deborah Lynch as she points to a fistful of crayon drawings labeled in wobbly script.

“Oh, that’s such good handwriting for kindergartners,” Lynch replies.

Saflarski then invites Lynch into her classroom, where the union leader “oohs” and “aahs” as she observes the lively space. She listens carefully as Saflarski explains the way in which she uses art to help pupils here at Jacques Marquette Elementary School master the alphabet. Lynch is impressed and tells her so.

Lynch understands how essential feedback is to teachers. After all, it was just one year ago that she taught 8th graders in this very building. Since then, Lynch has employed all she learned while a classroom teacher, and more, to begin pushing the 34,000-member Chicago Teachers Union in a new direction.

A year ago last month, the 50-year-old teacher surprised the education community, politicians, and even many of her own supporters when she ousted Thomas H. Reece, who had held the office for seven years.

Lynch believes she won the $102,000-a-year post because she offers members a new brand of unionism.

Not only does she advocate higher wages, better benefits, and improved working conditions, as any seasoned labor leader would, but she also insists that the labor organization instigate school improvement measures that go to the heart of teaching and learning. In her view, the CTU should work to lower class sizes, especially in the primary grades, and demand the enforcement of current school board policy on the matter. It should fight for special education students to receive appropriate schooling, rather than the one-size-fits-all education provided in many buildings. And the union should push the district to rely less on standardized testing and adopt many of the performance assessments Chicago teachers themselves have crafted.

As important as those issues are, though, Lynch lists the achievement gap between minority and white students as the most critical one facing the CTU. She says teachers can help solve the problem—if allowed to be partners in the effort, a status she says they have yet to achieve.

“I’m trying to explode the myth that teachers are the problem with the Chicago public schools,” says the willowy union president, her brown eyes wide and flashing. “We’re second to none. The issue is whether society is willing to provide the necessary resources to close that achievement gap.”

Such positions are in stark contrast to those staked out by Reece and members of his caucus, which had focused on the bread-and-butter issues of job security and better wages during their three decades in power.

Even the temperaments of the two are radically opposed. Quiet and reserved, Reece was rarely visible to the membership. Lynch is passionate, outspoken, even funny, and has a knack with television cameras. She literally reaches out to touch union members she knows, hugging them tightly or grasping their hands while asking about their families or swapping shopping tips.

Lynch lists the achievement gap between minority and white students as the most critical one facing the CTU.

But Lynch’s friends warn against pegging her as a sweetie pie in a pinafore. They say she is a bulldog and has a long memory. In a city made up of tough politicians who covet power and control, Lynch knows how to swagger.

The CTU president displays such traits at a recent union meeting at Alice L. Barnard Elementary School when she outlines the year’s past achievements, rolls out new priorities for the organization, and takes questions from members.

“We can guarantee you that we will not come back with a 2 or 3 percent raise,” Lynch tells her constituents, referring to upcoming contract negotiations. “When I started teaching in 1974, we were number one in salary. Now, our elementary teachers are 33rd [in the state], and our high school teachers are dead last in pay.”

The teachers nod approvingly as they munch doughnuts, content to listen to their leader even as chirping birds beckon them outdoors on this tender spring day.

Lynch, her face as expressive as a young child’s, regales them with examples of how she’s built bridges between the rank and file and the many players involved in Chicago school reform efforts since election results were announced on May 25, 2001. She’s persuaded the system’s chief executive officer to support the union’s efforts to run two low-performing schools. The CTU also announced that it would establish the nation’s first union-run master’s degree program for classroom educators.

Supporters say such acts have secured Lynch’s reputation as one of the nation’s most innovative union leaders. Evidence of such thinking came in April when members of the Teacher Union Reform Network, a coalition of local unions working to expand the role of such labor organizations, unanimously agreed to include the CTU in the group. The union attended TURN meetings in the past, but was never a member.

‘I don't think union money should be spent on reforming the schools.’

“She’s a very good example of the teachers’ union leader of the future,” says Adam Urbanski, her counterpart in Rochester, N.Y., who has worked with Lynch for more than 20 years and is a co-director of TURN. “She is strongly inclined toward collaboration, disinclined toward collusion, and very expert on the issues of instruction and professional issues. I think she’s going to be a blessing.”

That said, many within her own membership are counting the days until the 2004 election.

Some disagree with Lynch’s belief in broadening the work of the union; others maintain that she’s damaged the relationships between the union and other key figures in Chicago politics by criticizing them over the past few months. They also charge that the organization has become disorganized and lacks racial diversity within its leadership ranks.

“I don’t think union money should be spent on reforming the schools,” says Theodore T. Dallas, the president of the United Progressive Caucus, the faction that formerly held power. “If [teachers] were happy campers and thought they were getting paid adequately and didn’t think they could lose their job on a whim, they might go for something like that. The membership is not ready. She was a fluke.”

Teaching is not simply a job for Lynch. She describes it as a calling.

The union leader says she decided on a career in education at age 13, when her mother sent her on her bicycle to volunteer at a school near their home in Oak Lawn, a middle- and working-class suburb near Chicago’s South Side. There she met Timmy, an autistic boy whose memory continues to inspire her.

“He appeared to be a very unhappy child,” Lynch says. “He was off in his own world, as many autistic children are, and cried a lot. It just tugged at my heartstrings to try to ease whatever pain he was experiencing.”

One of her goals that summer was to make Timmy smile, she writes in her book Labor of Love: One Chicago Teacher’s Experience, self- published in 2000. Try as she might, however, it never happened.

Lynch was undeterred.

“We teach because we want to improve the lives of our children,” she says from her immaculate office at CTU headquarters in the Chicago Merchandise Mart Plaza, located downtown in the Loop. “We know that education, particularly in urban areas that serve lots of poor children, is a ticket to a better life.”

Education activists and members of the business community praise the CTU president for advocating school improvement measures.

As the oldest of eight siblings in a tight-knit Irish-American family, Lynch attended Roman Catholic schools until college. She earned a bachelor’s degree in 1973 from Western Illinois University, but dismisses her dual majors in elementary and special education as anything but rigorous.

The union leader describes her student teaching experience as “abominable.” She was outraged, for instance, when one special education teacher she shadowed required students to watch television game shows before forcing them to take afternoon naps. Still, Lynch didn’t blame the teacher. Instead, she says, the teacher was set up for failure by administrators who placed her in a class for which she had no experience.

The young teacher nearly fell into the same situation when she applied for jobs in the Chicago public schools, eager to make a difference in the lives of children who attended them. There was also some practicality to her decision: The public schools paid better than the private ones.

Administrators tried to talk Lynch into teaching a class of learning-disabled children. She refused, having been trained in another area of special education. Eventually, she was assigned to a classroom filled with what were then called “trainable mentally handicapped” children, her area of expertise.

Once employed, Lynch went to Chicago State University at night to earn her master’s degree in special education. It didn’t take long, though, for her to become disillusioned by elementary school administrators she perceived as controlling.

“Where I had expected respect, the bureaucracy’s demand was subservience,” she writes in her book. “I had expected some control over the decisions affecting me and my students ... yet the bureaucracy demanded that I do what I was told to do, when I was told to do it, and how I was told to do it.”

Frustrated, Lynch quit teaching altogether in 1979.

In the following years, she earned a doctorate in educational policy analysis from the University of Illinois at Chicago and launched a career as a staff member at the Chicago Teachers Union before moving on to the AFT, its national parent, in 1983.

In Washington, Lynch was exposed to the legendary Albert Shanker, the late AFT president, and many other nationally known progressive union leaders who were intent on broadening the horizons of the labor organization. Lynch’s task was to provide professional development to educators.

The CTU recruited Lynch back to Chicago in 1992 to start the Quest Center, an initiative that brought to the forefront the role of education reform in the union. Financed by a $1.1 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the center awarded schools grants to implement research-based teaching practices. The aim was to restructure schools in innovative ways with teachers leading the efforts.

But many at the CTU resented Lynch’s thinking and the Quest Center itself, which was subsidized by outside sources, rather than membership dues. The effort, Lynch says, was largely disregarded by the leadership following the death in 1994 of CTU President Jacqueline Vaughn and the ascension of her handpicked successor, Reece.

Meanwhile, Lynch’s private life was thrown into turmoil. Her only sister, Barbara, a victim of domestic violence, was murdered by her husband. Lynch stepped in to care for her sister’s three children, ages 1, 3, and 5. It was the second violent death in the family; Lynch’s brother Jimmy had died a few years earlier in a car accident.

Suddenly, Lynch’s priorities changed. She adjusted her working hours and moved to the southwest suburbs, where her parents could help her care for the children. Friends who stood by her side during that time say she reacted as she always does in adversity—with courage, strength, and a dedication to make the best of the situation.

“She immediately jumped in to rescue the children,” says Patrick O’Rourke, a friend of 30 years and the president of the Hammond Federation of Teachers in Indiana. “She was single at the time and really had no experience at being a mother.”

Supporters say Lynch's efforts have secured her reputation as one of the nation's most innovative union leaders.

The children, now 11, 13, and 15, today call Lynch “Mom.” Two of the three attend Catholic schools outside Chicago; the third is enrolled in a public school there. Lynch says her sister had a deep belief in the work of private schools and that her wishes for her children have been honored.

Back at the office, Lynch was growing frustrated. Reece and many other union officials had little interest in the professional-development initiatives she had come up with while at the Quest Center. What’s more, they disagreed with her view that the union should expand its scope to include what goes on inside the classroom. Instead, they argued that labor organizations should stick to ensuring members obtain good wages and benefits.

“The us-versus-them mentality was a result of a genuine belief that the union didn’t need to change,” Lynch says in her book. “A significant group of CTU staff and leadership ... truly believed in a ‘this too shall pass’ mentality.”

In 1995, she decided to return to teaching to “put into practice all the things I had learned since I had left it.”

It wasn’t long before Lynch was back in a leadership role at her new school, Marquette Elementary. While working as a resource teacher, she spoke against the nationally watched 1988 state law that had overhauled school-level governance in Chicago. The mandate, passed by the Illinois legislature while Lynch was living in Washington, had set up “local school councils,” boards of elected community members that govern some aspects of Chicago schools, including their discretionary budgets. Only two of the 11 seats were reserved for teachers—too few in Lynch’s estimation.

One way to influence the councils is through Professional Personnel Advisory Committees, groups of educators that advise the councils on such matters as curriculum. When no one else wanted the chairmanship at her school, Lynch volunteered and was elected.

Lynch sought more responsibility. Marquette Elementary teachers elected her as their delegate to the CTU. And she helped implement Success for All, a reading program developed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

Changes were also occurring in Lynch’s personal life. At Marquette, she met Bill Byrne, the school’s operating engineer, and married him in 1996. She also gained a stepdaughter, now 19 and in college.

Life, both personally and professionally, had become more fulfilling for Lynch, and yet she still felt teachers didn’t have enough say about their own profession. Moreover, the union had been stripped of many bargaining rights in 1995 under Reece’s watch, so there were fewer avenues available to the union to pursue changes.

Under that provision, pushed by the Republican-controlled legislature and backed by Mayor Richard M. Daley, a Democrat, the union could not bargain over layoffs, the privatization of services, class size, or the academic calendar, among other issues. It is the only teachers’ union in the state that does not have such rights. The rationale was to give Daley control of the public schools.

Lynch decided it was time to run for office.

Despite hopes for cooperation, the relationship between Lynch and Chicago district officials has been strained because of upcoming school closings.

That year, she gathered together a group of educators and formed the ProActive Chicago Teachers, or PACT, caucus. The aim was to perpetuate shared decisionmaking in Chicago schools, as sister unions in Miami-Dade County, Cincinnati, and Rochester, N.Y., had done.

Lynch’s run for the presidency in 1996 ended with a crushing defeat to Reece, who won 72 percent of the vote to her 27 percent.

Soon after, she penned a letter to Paul Vallas, then the chief executive officer of the Chicago district, outlining her vision.

“What if we in Chicago committed ourselves to getting our market back, to retrieving the students we have lost and succeeding with the ones we’ve kept,” Lynch wrote. “What if we committed to doing whatever we had to do to achieve it—even co-management? If [the Saturn car company] workers and management can work together to create a world-class car, surely we in the schools should be able to work together to create a world-class education for our children.”

She ran again for president in 1998, and this time garnered nearly 43 percent of the vote. Reece won 53 percent.

The Lynch camp was gaining momentum.

Victory finally came in May 2001, and Lynch was ushered into office with 57 percent of the vote to Reece’s 43 percent. Members of her caucus took all but nine of the 47 available posts, including the major offices of president, vice president, treasurer, financial secretary, and recording secretary.

The news shocked many in Reece’s camp, who had been sure the incumbent would be re- elected.

“They underestimated Debbie Lynch,” says Laurie R. Glenn-Gista, Lynch’s campaign manager and current spokeswoman.

Teachers had grown dissatisfied with what they saw as Reece’s passivity, and angry with Vallas for blaming systemwide problems on educators, Glenn-Gista says. Lynch offered teachers a voice at a time when the union was perceived to be in bed with management, she adds.

Moreover, members believed that Lynch understood their needs and challenges because she had recently been in the trenches, says James R. Fulton, an English teacher at George Washington Carver Military Academy, a Chicago public school. As union president, she continues to keep educators in the forefront when making all her decisions, he says.

“Debbie and her team have visited more schools in the past year than the previous union leaders have in the past 20 years,” says Fulton, who has taught in the city schools since the ‘70s. “They find time to see what’s of interest to teachers. Debbie listens.”

As satisfying as the win was for Lynch, the campaign fallout was nasty for both her and Reece.

Following her win, Lynch accused the former president and many of his top associates of trying to pervert the 2001 elections to their advantage. She charged that they had persuaded the Chicago school board to provide a one-time bonus to educators before the election, in the hope of winning members’ votes, while secretly pledging to sacrifice educators’ health benefits. In addition, she alleged that Reece and others took $1.4 million in unauthorized severance pay.

Union officials disagreed with her view that the union should expand its scope to include what goes on inside the classroom.

Reece, who served as both the president of the CTU and its state counterpart, called the allegations “a fabrication.” He quickly aimed his own arrows at Lynch, describing her as a bomb-thrower willing to reignite the war between the union and district officials.

Reece and nine other officials who were then still employed by the Illinois Federation of Teachers resigned in September. An internal investigation has concluded, but union officials refuse to divulge the full outcome. What is know is that Reece and his associates did return $239,000 to the union.

As a candidate, Lynch pledged to be involved directly in the schools—a promise she says she’s made good on by visiting 75 of the 600 buildings during the past 11 months. Often, the welcome is warm.

“She’s the best thing we’ve had since Jacqui Vaughn,” says Cynthia Louis, who teaches 5th grade at Alice L. Barnard Elementary School. “She sounds like a teacher.”

But other union members remain wary of Lynch and her new brand of unionism.

“We’re a union, not an advocacy group for children,” says Charles E. Usher, a retired high school teacher. “That’s not our responsibility—that’s the responsibility of the board of education.”

Others haven’t seen the changes they were expecting.

“I see her on the news complaining about things ... but she hasn’t done much for me,” says Audrey Mazurek, a reading tutor at John M. Smyth Elementary School. “I was just hoping the situation would get a little better.”

Many of the changes have taken place quietly, according to Lynch. She says she has built bridges between the rank and file and the other key people who provide policy, funding, and analysis of Chicago schools.

She admits that the transition into leadership was rough and that her opponents have been formidable.

For starters, members of the outgoing caucus refused to accept letters sent to union headquarters addressed to the president-elect. Nor would the telephone operator accept incoming calls for Lynch.

The initial House of Delegates meetings were chaotic, Lynch says, with members popping up to bash the new leadership.

Currently, two former CTU employees who claim she unlawfully booted them out of their jobs are pursuing lawsuits. Other members from the outgoing caucus still hold grudges.

To many in the world outside, however, Lynch’s victory provides new opportunities. Leaders of the city’s powerful education advocacy groups, philanthropies, and business organizations praise her for reaching out.

“She’s really opened the door of the union,” says Anne C. Hallett, the executive director of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, a coalition of education activists in Chicago. “In all the years Tom Reece was in office, he had no presence in the reform community at all. Debbie is a breath of fresh air.”

Warren K. Chapman, the program officer for education at the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, says Lynch’s agenda makes sense.

“I really strongly believe that we don’t give teachers anywhere near the voice they deserve, nor do we empower them as we need to,” he says. “Unfortunately, a vast majority of decisions that impact the classroom are made by people furthest from them.”

Lynch seems like a reasonable person and a creative thinker, vital traits in labor negotiations, says John Ayers, the executive director of the Leadership for Quality Education, a local business-backed group supportive of school improvements.

Lynch offered teachers a voice at a time when the union was perceived to be in bed with management.

The current chief executive officer of the school system, Arne Duncan, took office about the same time as Lynch, and many observers hoped that the two would forge a cooperative working relationship. For many, those hopes have been all but dashed.

While Lynch describes the union’s relationship with Duncan, school board President Michael Scott, and Mayor Daley as initially productive, she says it became strained following a district announcement last month that administrators would close three low-performing schools at the end of the school year. Two buildings will be reconstituted and reopened, the third closed permanently. More than 100 teachers will be placed in “reserve” status and allowed to substitute for 10 months while they look for jobs.

Lynch contends she was blindsided purposely to keep her from mustering ammunition to fight the closings. “We got a media advisory [over the fax machine] saying they had a radical new announcement ... an hour before the press briefing,” she says. “I called the board president and asked him not to do this. I said, ‘Give us a chance to talk.’ ”

She blasted the administration, rallied the membership, and offered an alternative in which the union would manage the schools.

What she has in mind is shared leadership between principals and a “staff cabinet” made up of teachers and paraprofessionals. Under her plan, schools also would offer an extended day that would include tutoring for students and professional-development time for staff members. The Success for All reading program would be implemented. Eighty percent of educators working in the targeted schools would have to agree to the plan before it could be tried.

Duncan, the district CEO, declined to comment on the record about Lynch’s charges. Closing the schools “was a difficult decision and not one we took lightly,” he says."It was absolutely the right thing to do.”

The schools chief says he would not consider implementing the union plan during this round of closures, but adds that he is “pushing it very aggressively” and would “love” to have the union program in place at two other low-performing schools by fall.

Despite their differences, Duncan says he has “tremendous respect” for Lynch and sees her as “a passionate educator.”

“She has brought energy and vitality to the teachers’ union,” he says. “There are a number of ways in which we’ve worked together. For example, we’re working actively to create a career ladder for teachers.”

Moreover, he says he sees teacher empowerment as a crucial part of improving schools and is relying heavily on Lynch to help him understand educators’ perspectives.

How board President Scott or Mayor Daley views the CTU president is unclear; neither of them returned multiple phone calls. Daley’s spokeswoman, Jackie Heard, told the Chicago Sun-Times following the announcement of the school closings that “the mayor has no interest in quarreling with the CTU, and he applauds their efforts. If the CTU is indeed committed to helping these students academically, and we believe they are, why not allow this approach to run its course and see if it works?”

The new union leader does have some allies in City Hall. Lynch and her staff have spent the past six months helping Ricardo Muñoz, an Independent alderman who sits on the City Council’s education committee, design a high school to be built in the South Side neighborhood he represents.

“The CTU has been very helpful,” he says. “I see [the union] as a partner to raise the level of debate on issues like dual language, bilingual education, social promotion and the like.”

One union idea Duncan is thoroughly in favor of is the Jacqueline B. Vaughn Graduate School for Teachers Leadership. He is one of the school’s nine trustees. The private institution, scheduled to open in January, will be the first such university program developed, sponsored, and staffed by a teachers’ union with the aim of granting master’s degrees in leadership to K-12 educators. The goal is to provide working professionals with access to best practices and research, information that can be applied in their classrooms, Lynch says. It will provide an avenue for educators to broaden their knowledge and increase their salaries without moving into the administrative ranks.

Some wonder if the trust among officials necessary to move the school system forward has already been broken.

Lynch herself conceived the idea years ago while working at the CTU’S Quest Center, but it never went forward. Now, national experts and local school reformers are welcoming it as a creative way to recruit, retain, and improve educators in Chicago.

“We think this really sends a signal that [the union] is doing their part,” says Julie Woestehoff, the executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, a nonprofit Chicago group that trains local school council members.

Lynch is trying to make a mark downstate as well.

The union president and her team put together a legislative package at the start of this school year in an attempt to order their efforts in Springfield, the state capital. Bills have been introduced that would restore the bargaining rights stripped from the union in 1995, limit class size to 20, and provide teachers on school committees with a greater voice, Jackie Gallagher, a union lobbyist, says. Others would make the teachers’ pension plan take overtime wages into account and dismiss a rule requiring Chicago teachers to live within city limits.

Gallagher credits Lynch with coming up with a CTU agenda, rather than reacting to anti-union measures, as she says had been the common practice during Reece’s tenure.

That’s saying a lot, given that Gallagher was a longtime spokeswoman for Reece and a vocal critic of Lynch’s. “It is unusual for the CTU, because we used to spend a long time reacting to negative legislation,” says the self-acknowledged convert. “There were some proactive bills, but nothing like this package concept.”

All the bills made it out of the House, and “significant” conversations are going on throughout the state on the restoration of bargaining rights, Gallagher says. The other initiatives, however, are in more or less dormant states. That doesn’t mean, however, they won’t be resuscitated in a fall veto session, she adds.

Not all the critics have been won over.

"[Lynch] should be working for a board, the university, or a consortium,” says Dallas of the United Progressive Caucus. “She’d be great at that; she’s just not great at being a union leader. And the scariest part is that next fall we have to negotiate a new contract.”

Usher, the retiree, worries that the Lynch team lacks the racial and ethnic diversity needed to guide a union that is largely made up of minorities. In the past, union leadership positions were shared equally by people of various races, says Usher, who is African-American. Now, he says, “that has changed to mostly all- white.”

Usher is so upset that he is working to resurrect the union’s black caucus.

Lynch says her cabinet is made up of eight whites and five minority members, but adds that the officers and directors are mostly nonwhite. The office staff is 45 percent black, 45 percent white, and 10 percent Latino.

Teaching is not simply a job for Lynch. She describes it as a calling.

Others wonder if the trust between Lynch, Duncan, Scott, and Daley so necessary to move the school system forward has already been broken.

“I’m concerned that the events [unfolding around the school closings] could cause a rift that’s hard to heal,” says Andrew G. Wade, the executive director of the Chicago School Leadership Cooperative, a citywide network that supports the public schools.

Lynch, for her part, says she’s just hitting her stride.

“There have certainly been mistakes,” she says, her usually animated hands folded in her lap. “But no huge bloopers come to mind.”

It would be out of character, after all, for bulldogs to tell all.

Coverage of leadership issues in education—including governance, management, and labor relations—is supported by the Broad Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 2002 edition of Education Week as Long Passage


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