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


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.