Asked and answered

Teachers’ union chief Jesse Sharkey on school closings, contract battles, and life after Rahm

PHOTO: PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat
Chicago Teachers Union chief Jesse Sharkey flanked by union officials on Sept. 4, 2018, the day Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced he was not seeking a third term. To his right is Stacy Davis Gates, the union's new vice president.


Two disruptions in the city power dynamic leave the Chicago Teachers Union in unfamiliar, and interesting, territory. Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced last week that he won’t seek a third term and has yet to endorse an heir apparent. Meanwhile, the union — which rarely misses a chance to spar with the mayor — officially promoted Vice President Jesse Sharkey to the top job, as expected, to succeed the formidable negotiator Karen Lewis, who has brain cancer and retired early.

Chalkbeat Chicago spoke with Sharkey about entering contract negotiations this fall amid seismic shifts in City Hall. We also asked about his negotiating style, if he really failed to return messages from former federal prosecutor Maggie Hickey, and how he plans to rally membership post-Janus. Observers predict a blow to union membership nationwide in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 decision in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31.

This interview was edited and condensed for publication.

Rahm Emanuel announced he’s not seeking re-election the day before you were officially promoted to union chief. How does that change your approach to entering a contract year?

It raises certain questions about how contract negotiations are going to work. I will say this: In order to manage schools, you have to know a bunch of stuff about education. Right now, there is an administration in Chicago Public Schools – not that we don’t have disagreements with them, we do – but, frankly, (CEO Janice) Jackson’s administration is completely capable of beginning the work of hammering out a labor contract. When we get to the tactical questions about what working conditions should be like, we expect to be able to start negotiating with her administration and the Board of Education.

Obviously, toward the end, there’s going to be some broader questions about direction, and whoever the mayor is going to be is going to want to weigh in on them. But I expect to be able to begin and stay a timeline so we can get a contract landed by the time school starts next year.

Will the union make support for an elected school board an absolute requisite for a mayoral endorsement?

We’re not in the business of making absolute requisites. Politics is a funny critter, and we’ll see what happens here.

How will the union weigh in on whether to keep schools CEO Jackson or appoint someone new?

We should have an (elected) school board making decisions about school leadership (school board members are appointed by Chicago’s mayor). But, in the meantime, I think it would be extremely useful for us to not keep changing leadership. We’re getting motion sickness back here, as the plane turns one way and then another, as it plunges and then climbs. People are reaching for their barf bags.

I don’t agree with everything, but she’s the most qualified CEO we’ve had in 20 years, and (we need) a little stability moving forward.

Putting politics aside for a moment, what is the single most crucial contract demand you are going to push for?

Adequately staffed schools.

Do you think things will get better with the district’s announcement that they are adding social workers and guidance counselors?

It’s recognition on the part of the district that there’s a real problem, but it’s no way near enough.

Your predecessor, Karen Lewis, was known for her sharp negotiating skills. There are also stories about how she’d host these long dinners and have deep conversations over great food. How do you describe your negotiating style and how different is it from Karen’s?

Karen really had the ability to envelop everybody at the negotiating table with her personal warmth, even as she told them no. Karen was extremely good at shooting down people’s bullcrap and doing it in a way that didn’t alienate them: The reason that skill is valuable is that, no matter how crazily opposed our camps were, we always maintained the ability to talk and not get crunchy. That meant that we could kind of keep things together in terms of negotiations.

People sometimes think of me as being someone who is interested in solving problems and oriented to solutions at the bargaining table. But I’m much more of a traditional trade unionist in some ways than Karen. I believe in sticking closely to my rank and file, and I believe the demands of the leadership need to be the demands of the table. I worry about the loss of Karen’s charm in that equation. I hope things don’t get crunchier, but if they do, so be it. I have to be me.

We talked staff in buildings. What else is your membership telling you they need?

People are more concerned with paying benefits, coming out of what’s been frankly a pretty austere last several years. Paying benefits is going to be an issue for us.

We’re definitely still in some internal conversations about what else filters out to the top, but people are still concerned about the future of the school system. I suspect we will continue to ask for some processes in democracy and fairness when the board starts thinking about closing schools. We obviously (want) to hold at bay charter growth. We have ideas about investing in community schools, and we have ideas that the city should start thinking about (around) affordable housing. We’re not at the point where we’ve crystallized how those ideas come to the table.

The Kids First report, which shows tens of thousands of vacancies, came out the same week as data from the universal enrollment platform GoCPS, which illustrates demand for some schools and not others. What is the right approach, from your point of view, to excess capacity?

I think one question is the methodology in the (Kids First) report. In 2013, when the district wanted to justify school closings, they made a bunch of decisions that were just erroneous. They made assumptions about how many students should be in classes that baked in oversized classes, such as 30 kids in kindergarten. In high school, where I taught for years, there’s a health center — several rooms that offer a really important service and make the school a nexus for keeping the school together. Does that count as an unused space because those are rooms that should be used for classes? That is not a fair way to look at it.

But even given that, the question you raise is legitimate. The heart of what was wrong with the school closings in 2013 is that the rationale for closing schools never was: Let’s close schools and save money. But the reason they didn’t say that is because, even Rahm and (former schools chief) Barbara Byrd-Bennett, as crass and corrupt as they were, weren’t willing to say: We have a budget crisis and we’re going to solve it on the backs of the poorest kids in the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago, virtually all of whom happen to be black and brown. Because when you close schools, that’s what you’re doing. They said they are going to close schools to improve educational outcomes for students. They did not improve the educational outcomes for students. Plenty of research shows that.

What I worry about is that, sometimes communities change and you need to do something different with a school building. You have to involve a community and have a democratic conversation about what you are trying to do. If you close all the schools in a neighborhood, you’ve killed that neighborhood. We’re not trying to be the San Francisco of the Midwest: We’re trying to be a city whose vision is still vibrant, working-class neighborhoods that have investment in them.

When I hear about the Kids First report, I think you need a commitment to the democratic process and an investment commitment, so that our neighborhoods are places people want to live.

So what do you think we should do with a high school that is built for 2,000 students and has 200?

The first thing you need to do is talk to people who live in that community and who go to that school. The second thing you have to do, in my opinion, is make some commitments to bring in resources and programs that are relevant to the people around there.

One of the crazy things I watched happen in public schools in Chicago is that we dismantled the trade and vocational programs. Rather than investing in that, and figuring out how to capture some of that activity for our schools, we shut them down. When I go out to some of those schools where the enrollments are the lowest, people tell me they’d like vocational programs. That’s easy to say and harder to do – there are a lots of parts to making that work – but we’re going to have to dig in to those problems in order to make public schools work in the neighborhoods. If you just shut down the schools, you’re not helping things.

What is your take on the Stanford report that shows Chicago is the fastest-improving urban district. Do you believe it?

Test scores are partly up because of the hard work of teachers, and students, and parents too. But you don’t see the teachers’ union holding press events about test scores like the mayor has been doing. We don’t — because the overemphasis on tests as metrics of school success is doing real harm to the values of education that we should be supporting.

Every study tells us that test scores follow so closely with the socioeconomic status of parents. So basically what you’re doing is confining a huge swath of schools in the poor neighborhoods of Chicago to really being behind the eight ball. It’s hard for them to ever be recognized as good schools, and then that rating makes it hard for them to attract students, and it becomes this harmful spiral.

I also object to this sort of being proud about test scores going up at the same time there are thousands of people leaving the system (Chicago enrollment declined by 64,100 children from 2000 to 2017). The scores are higher for the remaining students. But that’s not something we should be happy about; that’s something we should be ashamed of.

But I will say that, when I first started teaching in CPS, there were a lot of teachers I met who had not sent their own children to public schools. Now, every teacher I know sends their children to public schools in Chicago. That’s not in the [Stanford] study, but I think that’s telling.

In Maggie Hickey’s preliminary report (which examines the district’s handling of sexual misconduct cases), she goes so far as to write in the footnotes that you didn’t call her back. Do you agree with the observation that the union has been absent in the discussions about what to do?

I’m super annoyed about that. She emailed me, the email went to my spam folder, I happened not to see it. I’m not that hard to get in touch with – you can call my assistant, our front desk, our press office. There are a lot of ways to get in touch with me.

We, very early on, reached out to the board and said let’s get a group of us together — especially the people who are the frontline workers — because we want to do something about it. This is not something I’ve told anyone on the record, but I personally was a victim of abuse when I was a kid. And I put my own children in public schools. So this is not something we’re trying to politicize. We have to keep kids safe, and we have to believe children. I feel like that was just a shot.

Can you describe how the union has been a part of the discussion?

I personally reached out to Janice Jackson, and said, let’s get a table together. I’ve mentioned it in public several times.

Did it happen?

We haven’t been taken up on it at this point.

All our teachers are going through (fingerprinting and background rechecking), and that chews up a lot of personnel time and energy. I much rather would have had less of a big public pronouncement — look what we’re doing: We background checked everyone! — and instead teach people who work in schools what to look for, who to call, how to assess our processes at any given school to keep children safe. We probably are still going to get there, and it probably is still going to happen, but it hasn’t happened yet.

In your last contract, you demanded a sustainable schools program (which partners 20 neighborhood schools and community groups and funds $10 million worth of extra services). Will that be part of the negotiations for the next contract?

It absolutely will. In places where there is a partnership with real grassroots community groups, people view schools are being a source of strength in the neighborhood. We are very committed to seeing it continue and giving it a chance to succeed.

What is your message to your membership in the post-Janus era? Are you worried about retrenchment?

Our union has a vision about where we want to go, and that vision was always closely connected to Karen. But the truth is that there has been an educational justice movement in Chicago, and there is a whole cohort of teachers and paraprofessionals and parents and clinicians and students who have found our voice. We want schools to be a place where there is joy associated with teaching and learning. I think that’s a compelling vision, and I know that there are a lot of people who are not union officials who feel that.

It’s never been about a fee for service, or the mean union takes your money and you don’t know what happens. We know what we have. We have an organization that belongs to its members, that fights for what we believe in, that has energy and skill, and that makes the city a better place.


resentment and hurt

‘We are all educators:’ How the teachers strike opened at a rift at one Denver middle school network that will take time to close

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Students at Kepner Beacon Middle School work on an assignment.

For the first time since this week’s Denver teacher strike exposed divisions in their ranks, the 100 grownups who make the Beacon middle school network run gathered in the same room.

Teachers, some still wearing red for the union cause, came with breakfast burritos to share. Upbeat soul music pumped through the speakers, an attempt to set a positive tone.  

Speaking to the group assembled Friday for a long-scheduled planning day in the cafeteria of Grant Beacon Middle School, Alex Magaña acknowledged the awkwardness and hurt feelings that have taken a toll on a school community that prides itself on a strong culture.  

The network’s two schools — Grant Beacon in east Denver and Kepner Beacon in southwest Denver — aim to provide a high-quality education to some of the city’s neediest students. A day after most teachers returned to work after the three-day strike, Denver students had a day off Friday, giving school leaders the opportunity to begin repairing any damage done.

“It’s never been administration-versus-teachers, district-versus-teachers, in the culture we have created here,” said Magaña, executive principal of the two schools. “We have a lot of good leadership, a lot of input from teachers. But this caught everyone kind of surprise.”

By “this,” Magaña means the tension that developed on the two campuses during the strike over teacher pay that put Denver in an unfamiliar national glare. The 93,000-student district is better known for its unique brand of at times controversial education reform — of which the Beacon network is part — than labor strife and division in the educator ranks.

Against the backdrop of the strike, Magaña realized words matter. Everyone in the building, he thought, not just teachers, ought to be considered educators and referred to as such. That was the role everyone was thrust into — administrators, deans, and district central office staff who through no choice of their own had to cover for absent teachers. Magaña, too. He taught math.

When teachers, administrators, and staff arrived for Friday morning’s meeting, they congregated at tables with colored pencils and “reflection forms.” Everyone was asked to write down answers to two questions: What did you learn about yourself? What did you learn about your colleagues?

“I also brought out the obvious — the elephant in the room,” Magaña said. “There are hurt feelings. There is resentment from teachers to staff to students to parents. That is something we can’t pretend isn’t there, and we put it out there and acknowledge it to move forward.”

Go to the vast majority of public schools in this country and classrooms look largely the same. Not so in Denver Public Schools, which is deep into its second decade of offering a menu of choices at traditional district-run, charter, and hybrid “innovation” schools.

From this approach sprung Grant Beacon Middle School, which opened on the east side of Denver in 2011. The school seeks to build students’ character and promote personalized learning — essentially, using data and technology to tailor instruction to individual students.

Grant Beacon is an innovation school, meaning it doesn’t need to follow all aspects of state law or the teachers union contract.

Using one of its more controversial school improvement strategies, the Denver district began phasing out struggling Kepner Middle School in 2014 and moved to put two schools in the same building: a new Beacon school and an outpost of the STRIVE charter network.  

The Denver district allows charter schools to use extra space in its school buildings essentially at cost, creating shared campuses with district-run schools. It’s an arrangement that would be unfathomable in most U.S. cities where districts and charter schools are in perpetual conflict.

Both schools on the shared campus were “green,” the second-highest ranking, on the district’s most recent school ratings report last fall.

The teacher strike, however, exposed the stark differences between the two Beacon campuses.

Both schools serve a high proportion of low-income students. At Grant Beacon, 80 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty — slightly above the district average. But things are far more challenging at Kepner, where 96 percent of students fit that definition. The school is a refuge where students can be fed and be safe from trauma.

The differences in student attendance and teacher strike participation at the two schools were stark. About half of Grant Beacon students showed up for school during the strike, and six in 10 teachers joined the strike. Four miles and a world away at Kepner Beacon, 90 percent of students showed up for school — and all but a few teachers were out on strike.

At Kepner Beacon, the network’s “all-for-one, one-for-all” culture of togetherness helped unite its relatively young corps of teachers in a shared resolve to go on strike.

That and high student attendance meant Kepner Beacon faced far greater challenges to keep operating, perhaps as much as any of the city’s 147 district-run schools during the strike.

Linsey Cobb had an emotionally wrenching weekend ahead of the strike’s start. She was torn. A special education teacher and the special education team leader at Kepner Beacon, she stood with teachers fighting for a system they believed would pay them a better, fairer wage.

But the third-year teacher decided to report to work as usual Monday morning, feeling too strong of a pull to fulfill her responsibilities supporting the neediest students — those with individualized lesson plans, the complex and sometimes confounding binding documents for students with special needs.

Cobb was not fully prepared by what she experienced on that morning.

“Even though I am very close with my students, I felt incredibly isolated,” she said. “I got the weirdest feeling. I got a lot of, ‘Miss, why aren’t you striking? Don’t you believe what teachers are fighting for?’ I was like, ‘I do!’ I had a little bit of an internal struggle.”

Cobb’s Monday ended early enough for her to attend the big teachers union rally at the Capitol. She said she was touched by the camaraderie. She caught up with old friends from her days with the Denver Teachers Residency, an important training ground of the city’s teaching corps.

Taking all of that into consideration, Cobb joined her colleagues picketing the next day Teachers shared donuts and coffee. Parents brought them hand-warmers in the 20-degree chill.

One teacher sat in her car with the engine running recording a video message to her students, telling them where she was and spelling out the day’s lesson plan before she joined everyone else on the picket line.

Though the district spent $136,000 to prepare makeshift lesson plans for the strike, Beacon teachers prepared their own and uploaded them to the network’s cloud-based system.

On Friday, Cobb was back with all of her colleagues — striking teachers, those who never left the classroom, and staff and administrators who experienced the life of a teacher for three days.

“It’s about trust,” Magaña said. “Some of it was cracked a little bit. There was no contention in the room (Friday). It was really coming in with openness and willingness by everyone to say, ‘It’s done, and we did the right thing for ourselves. Now it’s time to come closer together.’”

“Normalcy will happen,” added Cobb, the special education teacher. “But it might take a bit.”


Aurora school district numbers shows some positive results from hard-to-staff bonus

Students work on algebra problems in a college-level course at Hinkley High School in Aurora.

When the Aurora school district offered some teachers and service providers a bonus for accepting or returning to hard-to-staff positions, the district saw less turnover in those jobs and had more of them filled by the start of the school year.

But the results weren’t consistent across schools, and there were differences in how teachers and other support staff responded to the bonus. Some schools still saw big increases in turnover. And the district still couldn’t fill all positions by the start of the school year.

In a report that district staff will present to the Aurora school board Tuesday, survey responses show the bonus was most influential for new special service providers, such as nurses, occupational therapists, or speech language pathologists. But only 33 percent of new teachers coming into the district said the bonus made an impact on their decision.

Aurora administrators refused to talk about the findings ahead of the board meeting. When the district first announced the bonuses, Superintendent Rico Munn said he had hoped the pilot bonus system would help the district attract more candidates, fill more vacancies, and retain more employees. The union objected to the bonuses. The union and the district begin negotiations next month on how to spend $10 million that voters approved to raise teacher pay.

An arbitrator ruled that the district should have negotiated the terms of the bonuses with the union first, but the school board refused to uphold the finding. District officials had indicated that the results of the pilot incentives would play a role in what changes they propose going forward, and it’s not clear where the school board, a majority of whom were elected with union support, will come down.

On a state and national level, incentives for teachers are being questioned after Denver teachers went on strike, in part over a disagreement about how effective incentives can be and whether that money is better spent on base pay. Ultimately, the tentative agreement that ended the strike on Thursday maintained a number of bonuses, including $2,000 for educators in hard-to-staff positions.

In the Aurora pilot program, the district offered a bonus for special education, secondary math and secondary science teachers at 20 targeted schools. If staff in those positions committed to returning to their job for this year, they could get $3,000. If they returned, but did not give an early commitment, the bonus would be $2,500.

The same rules applied for other positions such as psychologists, nurses, occupational therapists, and speech pathologists, but those employees were eligible at all district schools. New employees in those positions could get $2,500.

To pay for the bonuses, the district had set aside $1.8 million from an unexpected increase in revenue due in part to rising property values. The district only ended up spending about $1.1 million.

Among 229 eligible teachers, 133 returned to their jobs, committing early, and another 29 returned without making an early commitment, meaning about 70 percent of teachers were retained and received the bonus.

Of the 20 schools at which teachers of math, science, and special education received incentives, turnover went down at 13 schools, up at another five, and stayed the same at two.

Among 184 staff members in the other hard-to-staff positions districtwide, 141 returned to their jobs, or 77 percent, all of them committing early and receiving the higher bonus.

The report doesn’t compare those numbers with previous years’.

Ramie Randles, a math teacher, was at Aurora West Collegiate Prep last year and received the bonus. But, she says, she had already decided to return to the same job this school year even before she learned about the bonus.

“To be honest with you it’s nice to get a little extra, but it’s a very small amount that’s not going to sway me one way or another,” Randles said.

In the second quarter of the school year, she left her job at Aurora West and is now teaching math at North Middle School.

The bonus is offered at both schools, but it wasn’t a factor, she said.

“I just feel like I want to feel valued in a job,” Randles said. “If I’m feeling like I’m happy that affects not just me, it affects my students. It affects my coworkers.”

According to the district, 98.26 percent of those who received a bonus remain in the same position as of this week.

Fill rates, which represent how many of the district’s positions are filled by the start of the school year, show an increase, although often small, among all positions except for school psychologists.

Fill rates over time: Did Aurora have more positions filled at the start of this school year than in the past?

Position 16-17 17-18 18-19
Secondary math teachers at 20 schools 91.5% 92.6% 93.4%
Secondary science teachers at 20 schools 93.5% 93.8% 94.8%
Special education teachers at 20 schools 92.6% 89.4% 90.24%
Nurses, district-wide 87.3% 94.6% 98%
Occupational therapists, district-wide 95.4% 80% 96.1%
Psychologists, district-wide 94.4% 96% 95.4%
Speech language pathologists, district-wide 75% 81.4% 85.4%

Another goal of the pilot was to help the district save money by decreasing the use of contract agencies to fill important positions.

The report found that compared with last year, fewer positions were filled through contract agencies.

The Aurora district “was one of the few districts in the metro area that did not provide some form of differentiated pay or incentive for hard-to-fill subject areas,” according to the district. As examples, the report cites Cherry Creek, Denver, and Douglas school districts.

Bruce Wilcox, president of Aurora’s teachers union, said the union has “no interest in pay like Denver does.”

He is against the bonus because he disagrees with setting up different pay for people doing the same jobs in different schools, and because he doubts it will have a long- term effect.

“For some, maybe money was enough to lure them in, but will it be enough to lure them in over a period of time?” Wilcox asked. “Money’s nice and every teacher needs it, let’s be honest, but is it enough to make you continue to work if the leadership and culture aren’t there?”

Tuesday, Aurora staff will also present the school board with an update on overall strategies to improve teacher recruitment and retention. Among those strategies: the development of new training for principals, including on how to motivate and retain high-performing employees.

Another report on the pilot incentives will be prepared this fall with final numbers of how many teachers stayed.

Find turnover rates for the pilot, by school, in the district’s report below. Note: The colors in the second column represent a comparison over the prior year with green showing that it is a lower rate than in the past.