It’s been nearly a decade since an upstart leadership group took the reins of the Chicago Teachers Union and gained national attention for agitating on issues beyond the conditions of the city’s classrooms. The Caucus of Rank and File Educators has taken on racial inequality in the labor force, argued for social supports in schools, and given millions of dollars to progressive political candidates.
But that group now faces an internal challenger: a small but vocal cadre of current and retired educators running on bread-and-butter issues like teacher pay and working conditions.
“Teachers aren’t feeling supported in the nuts and bolts of their daily work concerns,” said Therese Boyle, a school psychologist and 35-year district veteran who is running for president on the Members First slate.
Boyle also has concerns about the union’s financial management, particularly the cost to build its current headquarters while still paying rent on its former building.
The challengers also include Victor Ochoa for vice president, Deborah Yaker for financial secretary and Sharon Davis as recording secretary. To get on the ballot for the May 17 election, they submitted petitions from teachers in over 100 schools.
We spoke with Boyle about her experience and why she’s running. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What inspired you to run for leadership of the union, and what is Members First’s main promise to teachers?
I am a citywide delegate, so I represent citywide clinicians. I also serve on several committees, currently on the schools and election committee, and the clinicians committee. I believe that the CTU needs a change in leadership. I am looking to put the focus and resources back into serving our members, and I am looking to bring some radical reform in terms of transparency to the union in terms of their decision-making and spending. I want to get their financial house in order. Some checks and balances are needed.
You’ve mentioned concerns about CTU finances. How would you like to see decision-making change?
I started taking a closer look at the way CTU was managing its finances, and I became very concerned about their ability to serve members. When we were doing our constitution change, I asked if they would consider having the foundation be more member driven. The original purpose of the foundation [Chicago Teachers Union Foundation] was to support both the students and families in CPS, and the teachers, so I would like some input on that.
Part of the problem started with the desire to have our own union home. The purchase we made of the building on Carroll Street, we did that when we still held a lease at the Merchandise Mart location. [In response, Jesse Sharkey of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators said that decision-making is currently done through elected bodies. He also noted the lease for the space at the Merchandise Mart was negotiated by the former leadership in 2009 and extends through to 2021.]
The Chicago Teachers Union is recognized as a national leader in how it’s approached education issues. How do you think its leadership has performed in the decade they’ve led the union?
Initially, when the [current leaders] were running, I remember listening to Karen Lewis and being impressed. They were inclusive of other caucuses, and I liked that. They have gotten away from that now, they have changed in their level of transparency, and they have changed in their level of encouraging members to drive decisions. I think they have lost their way, and members in the schools are suffering as a result.
They are following a dream they believe one day will help all of the city of Chicago, and I can understand and support some of that. But my main concern is when I am out in the schools every day, I hear teachers telling me they are concerned about the level of trauma and violence they are seeing their classrooms, and the conditions at the schools. But they see the union as separate from that.
How would your caucus deal with the challenge of negotiating the next contract with a new mayor?
Working as a school psychologist, I have spent a lot of time at the table with parents, community agencies, attorneys and administration from CPS presenting information to get the very best I can for students. Those things will serve me well in negotiating. I was heartened to hear Lori Lightfoot on the night she won her victory speech give a shoutout to teachers, and I thought that was very gracious of her.
If I come to the table with a lot of data and show how our proposals would work, I think she will listen. There is some motivation right now because of the teacher shortage — we can’t find teachers, something is going to have to be done in order to attract and maintain teachers.
The current union leadership has expanded its organizing to include charter teachers. Would you continue investing in that area?
Initially, I was very much against the charter merger. At the time CTU was not able to give me a five-year cost-benefit analysis of how this would impact our ability to function as a union. Now I do believe unionizing charters has slowed down the proliferation of charter schools. I would support going forward, but I would want to take a very careful look at how much of it we would take on at once, because I would like to make sure we could do it well within our budget.