June 13, 2010
BY MARY WISNIEWSKI AND ROSALIND ROSSI Staff Reporters
Karen Lewis, a high school chemistry teacher who has been a fierce opponent of Mayor Daley's Renaissance 2010 program to shake up and rejuvenate public schools, handily defeated two-term president Marilyn Stewart for the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union early Saturday.
Lewis and her Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) slate won in a virtual sweep against Stewart's United Progressive Caucus team that has been in power for 37 of the last 40 years, with Lewis trouncing Stewart by a 3-2 margin.
The change in CTU leadership -- Lewis takes the reins July 1 -- could put Mayor Daley in a political pinch through demands for the city to return tax-increment financing (TIF) funds to each school taxing district.
Lewis has organized protests against the Renaissance 2010 program, which has closed schools and displaced hundreds of teachers. Closed schools have reopened as charters that use non-CTU teachers. She inherits a hornet's nest of troubles as the Chicago Public Schools system struggles with an estimated deficit of $437 million, plus another $420 million in late state payments.
One elementary school teacher who voted for Lewis said teachers at her school "were really fed up with Marilyn Stewart. . . . They feel like she's in bed with Mayor Daley and [schools CEO] Ron Huberman, and she's not standing up to them," said the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous.
Up to 2,700 teachers and 300 non-teaching union members could lose their jobs if class sizes rise from an average of 30 to 35, which has been proposed as a budget-balancing measure by CPS officials. This would infuriate parents, who have protested against larger class sizes.
"Our plans are to defend public education -- that's what it's always been from the very beginning," said Lewis, 56, who teaches at King College Prep High School. "We're working right now with the current leadership to make a smooth transition."
Lewis said she seeks a "completely transparent budget," including all consulting contracts and deals with outside firms, so teachers and school officials can talk about spending priorities.
"We can't look at massive layoffs and 35 to 37 students in the classroom," the new union president said.
CPS officials revealed Friday they plan to borrow up to $800 million to pay their bills, even as they pledge to boost teacher pay 4 percent. CPS announced plans for a special School Board meeting Tuesday to take up the borrowing, the teacher raises and the controversial plan to raise class size. If School Board members do not pass a pay hike resolution by June 15, the teachers union could open talks that might lead to a strike.
Lewis declined to comment on whether she wanted to trade pay hikes for smaller class sizes.
"I can't talk about this or that without real numbers," Lewis said. "I don't want to talk about theoreticals. Let's see the real numbers before we can talk."
She said teachers can offer "alternative solutions and alternative spending plans." Her caucus has sought detailed budget information, using the Freedom of Information Act.
Stewart's United Progressive Caucus tried to portray Lewis in campaign literature as a radical who may want a strike. One high school teacher who supported Stewart said that teachers "can't afford to be too radical right now."
In a statement Saturday, Stewart congratulated Lewis and her team.
"They can count on me for any assistance I can offer as they take on what will be one of the toughest challenges in the 73-year-history of the Chicago Teachers Union," the outgoing union president said.
Lewis won 12,080 votes to Stewart's 8,326. CORE's platform includes limiting standardized tests; banning the use of test results to punish students, schools and teachers, and leading legislation to fund all schools equitably.