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Local influence adds to teacher-union power

By Scott Reeder, Small Newspaper Group Springfield Bureau
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Margaret Blackshere, Illinois AFL-CIO president, is a former kindergarten teacher.

SPRINGFIELD – Illinois’ two major teacher unions not only exert their political clout through lobbying the legislature but also through tough negotiating and politicking on a local level.

“One of the wonderful things about being a teacher is that you get to help elect your own bosses,” said Illinois AFL-CIO president Margaret Blackshere, a former kindergarten teacher.

She said teacher unions on a local level often become involved in school board races through endorsing candidates and having members actively campaign for them.

Limited revenues often keep union-friendly boards from giving pay raises as large as some teachers might like, but there are less visible ways that board members can assist a union agenda.

Unions routinely push for adding procedural hoops for the district to jump through when evaluating teachers as a tradeoff for not receiving quite as large a pay raise as the union originally called for.

Chicago-attorney Fred Lifton has represented school districts in more than 1,000 labor contract negotiations during the past 35 years.

“Generally, job security issues are more important at the negotiating table than compensation issues. I wouldn’t say that school boards have so much a pro-union viewpoint as a pro-teacher one. They ran for school board because they care about education. They want to be loved. It’s a very parental, almost family-like relationship they have with teachers.

“So when unions push for making it harder to fire teachers, they often give in. They don’t realize the long-term costs of not being able to get rid of someone who is incompetent.”

Lifton added it is not uncommon for Illinois school board members to belong to teachers unions in neighboring school districts where they are employed or have family members working in the school district they are involved in governing.

“They will tell you this doesn’t pose a conflict of interest and legally it doesn’t. But it does certainly create a certain sympathy for what the union is requesting,” he said.

In fact, it has become routine for school boards to give away much of the authority they have in the evaluation process during contract negotiations.

For example, the school board for Rock Island District 41 approved a contract with the union that includes 10 pages of detailed rules for how a teacher shall be evaluated.

The slightest deviation from any specification within the contract --- ranging from an improperly placed checkmark to a missed deadline can result in an evaluation being thrown out in a dismissal proceeding.

But it is not as though the district has tried to fire a tenured teacher recently.

According to the Rock Island chapter of the Illinois Education Association, the district has not used the evaluation system to try to fire a teacher since 1994, when it attempted to fire teacher Randi Barnes on grounds of poor performance. (Hearing officer's ruling in Barnes case)

In that case, the school district ultimately paid Barnes $75,000 to quit after a hearing officer ruled against the district.

The hearing officer Donald J. Peterson said he ruled for Barnes solely because of a procedural error. The district’s mistake he said was that it only listed the teacher’s weaknesses on the evaluation, but didn’t include any of her strengths, which is required by the school code.

Although it was a provision in the law that protected Barnes, some contend union contracts are a greater source of protection for teachers than state law.

“If you can restrict through negotiations how often an administrator can observe a classroom, how many days notice needs be given before an observation or other procedural impediments, you are really affording the teacher more job protection than they are getting from tenure itself,” said Myron Lieberman, who heads the Education Policy Institute.

Lifton added, “Once a board gives up some of its management authority, it is very hard to get it back in future contract negotiations. You have to offer something in exchange. And what does a school board have to offer, once it has given up some of its managerial authority?”

In school board elections, the local teacher’s union often plays a pivotal role.

They said it...
photo Former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar: “They don’t just put up money -- they put people on the streets. They are really the only groups I can think of outside of some of the religious groups that put people on the street.”

“School board elections have the lowest turnout of any elections in the state. Historically, no more than 10 to 15 percent of voters participate. The low turnout maximizes the influence of the teachers union, which usually is the only organized special interest involved in the election,” said Ron Michaelson, former executive director of the Illinois State Board of Elections.

Lieberman contends that teacher unions find it easier to mobilize their members than private-sector unions.

“They have summers off and a shorter workday so they have more time to devote to political activities and they often have negotiated personal days into their contracts that can be used for political purposes like taking Election Day off to ferry voters to the polls,” he said.

And that is certainly the case in some Illinois school districts.

“We went door-to-door for candidates, telephoned for them, endorsed them and really went out and worked for them. Our association could put together 1,500 votes – enough to win any school board election,” said Philip Robbins, a past president of the Alton Education Association.

But in most Illinois school districts, the influence of the local teacher union is exerted with more subtlety.

“I’m sure teachers told friends and family members what candidates they thought would be good board members. In a smaller community that is just how things are done – by word of mouth. I don’t remember our local union actively campaigning for candidates,” said Craig Whitlock, who recently retired as superintendent of United Township High School District in East Moline.

Scott Reeder can be contacted at 217-525-8201.