Who’s who at the bargaining table? Educators dominate the table at CPS teacher contract talks

With an October 17 strike date looming, these are the people negotiating for the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union.

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In 2016, the Chicago Teachers Union reached a contract agreement with about an hour to go before a strike deadline. Celebrating afterwards are CTU attorney Robert Bloch, Financial Secretary Maria Moreno, then-President Karen Lewis and Janice Jackson, currently the CEO but CPS’ chief education officer at the time.

Andy Grimm / Sun-Times

Now that there’s an Oct. 17 deadline when Chicago’s 25,000 teachers could walk out of classrooms, the teams from the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union will step up their bargaining sessions through next weekend.

Both sides have pledged to keep at it, with Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson vowing to bargain “at an aggressive pace to reach a deal that is fair to our teachers and staff,” and CTU president Jesse Sharkey pledging to “put in as much time as we need to put in.”

But who are the individuals working to avert the strike that would keep 300,000 Chicago students out of school?

This time around, they’re nearly all educators.

Former teachers and principals now make up the bulk of CPS’ team, which both sides say is a welcome change from the bureaucrats negotiating for the schools in 2012 when just one teacher attended the talks, and only a second, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, joined in after the CTU walked out. In 2016, three educators were on the CPS team that struck a deal with the union minutes before a strike deadline.

In addition, this time several of the 10 negotiators also are CPS grads and parents of CPS students.

The change is not only because CPS now counts significantly more former teachers and principals among its top officials since Jackson took over. CPS leaders also learned from contentious previous contract talks that the earlier people who’ve actually worked in schools join negotiations with the CTU’s teachers and school staffers, the better.

“The tone behind closed doors is very productive, very respectful for the most part,” said Arnie Rivera, CPS’ chief operating officer.  “This contract for both parties isn’t just about compensation, it’s about making the school system better.” 

Some of the meetings have been heated. But at the table, bargaining sessions have been civil and even described as “work sessions.”

”Emotions do run high sometimes,” said Kristy Brooks, a CTU “Big Bargaining Team” member since 2016. “But bargaining isn’t always contentious. There are some ways where good things can be created.”

There’s also a lot of new blood on both sides joining contract negotiations for the first time, including one of the CTU’s elected officers and three of CPS’ top officials, plus the lawyer acting as Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s representative.

And finally, what became apparent during the last two times the country’s third largest school district and one of its oldest teachers unions hashed out a contract, is that who’s on those teams matters. Individual skills and experience and personalities help shape and guide negotiations.

In 2012, when the CTU walked out for the first time in 25 years, a relatively unknown Byrd-Bennett, a veteran educator who got along with the CTU‘s charismatic president Karen Lewis, helped end that seven-day strike. 

Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Karen Lewis

As seen in 2014, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools and Karen Lewis, President of the Chicago Teachers Union, had a good working relationship many credit with ending the teachers strike in 2012.

Al Podgorski / Sun-Times Media

In 2016, the late addition of Jackson, then CPS’ second in command, helped smooth the way to a deal within an hour of the strike deadline. She posed, smiling with CTU members in victory photos. Conspicuously absent that year was CPS CEO Forrest Claypool, whom the union despised and constantly bashed.

Jackson has yet to take a seat at the bargaining and isn’t expected to until an end is in sight. Lightfoot, who’s been offering for weeks to jump in, likely won’t.

Chicago Public Schools Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade and CEO Janice Jackson (right) and Mayor Lori Lightfoot

Chicago Public Schools Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade and CEO Janice Jackson (right) look on as Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks about the Chicago Teachers Union contract last month.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Meanwhile, there are always about a dozen people from each side sitting at the bargaining table, plus more people from CTU’s Big Bargaining Team sitting behind their union officers and attorneys.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor Bob Bruno, who has studied CPS-CTU negotiations for years and wrote a book about the 2012 strike, said the makeup of the teams now and the city’s top officials could help head off a strike.

“The folks at CPS who are involved are not as easy to vilify as they were back then,” he said.

“Lightfoot is not [former Mayor Rahm] Emanuel, Jackson is not Claypool. You have educators at CPS. That wasn’t the case back then. I think that makes it harder to kind of vilify the employer. And of course CTU has new people who bring a lot of vitality and energy into it.”

Representing CPS:

CPS’ Chief Operating Officer Arnie Rivera is also a former member of the Chicago Board of Education. | Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

CPS’ Chief Operating Officer Arnie Rivera has taken part in contract talks with the CTU in 2012 and 2016.

Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

Arnie Rivera, 39, is in charge of CPS’ operations, including facilities. In and out of CPS starting in 2004 when he taught first grade, he negotiated in 2012 as then-CEO J.C. Brizard’s deputy chief of staff and 2016, too. Between stints at educational foundations, Rivera was an education liaison for Emanuel, who later appointed him to the Board of Education. Rivera has a reputation as a straight talker and a problem solver. He’s married to a CPS teacher and is the father of a CPS student.

LaTanya McDade is chief education officer of Chicago Public Schools.

LaTanya McDade is chief education officer of Chicago Public Schools.

Rahul Parikh/Sun-Times

Chief education officer LaTanya McDade is in charge of the teaching and learning side of the school district. A longtime CPS teacher, Keller Elementary school principal and network chief who oversaw principals, these are her first contract talks. McDade, 45, is also a CPS graduate often described as straightforward. 

Chief schools officer Bogdana Chkoumbova, 50, is a former principal best known for founding the K-12 Disney II Magnet School, though she was a special ed teacher at Chopin Elementary. Jackson promoted her to a network chief — one of 17 officials that oversee groups of principals —and earlier this year, she stepped up to become the head of all those networks.

Matt Lyons heads CPS’ vast human resources department. Lyons also has been in and out of CPS departments for the last decade, leaving in 2014 for the Chicago Public Education Fund, though he was never a teacher.

Eva Giglio has worked directly for Jackson since 2015, recently as the CEO’s deputy chief of staff and representative in contract talks. She worked at Farragut High School, and Kenwood Academy High School, teaching Spanish. 

Chkoumbova, Lyons and Giglio are all new to bargaining.

For the CTU:

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey has been at the last three rounds of contract talks.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Jesse Sharkey, 49, a former high school social studies teacher, leads the CTU as president. He was the union’s wonkish VP in 2012 and 2016 and was in on contract talks. Sharkey has pushed a progressive platform that goes beyond the city’s classrooms, and though he publicly talks tough and can rally a crowd, he’s considered a pragmatist at the bargaining table. His two children are CPS students.

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates is bargaining her union’s contract for the first time.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Stacy Davis Gates, 42, is the newly elected vice president of the union who ran for a leadership job after Lewis’ brain cancer forced her into an early retirement. She was CTU’s presence in Springfield for several years, and before that, taught at the old Englewood and Mason high schools and at Clemente High School. Davis Gates is known for blunt rhetoric that advocates for social justice reforms way broader than those pushed for by a typical teachers’ union. Her three children also attend CPS schools.

Maria T. Moreno, financial secretary for the Chicago Teachers Union

Maria T. Moreno became financial secretary for the Chicago Teachers Union during the 2016 contract fight.

Chicago Teachers Union

Maria Moreno became the CTU’s financial secretary during the last contract fight. Previously, she had been a bilingual education teacher, a speech language pathologist and she took part in earlier iterations of the Big Bargaining Team.

Christel Williams-Hayes, 56, is the newest CTU officer, elected in May just after Lightfoot was sworn in. She was a strike organizer in 2012, and serves on the board of the state-level Illinois Federation of Teachers. Williams-Hayes and her three daughters all graduated from CPS. She spent the bulk of her schools career as a classroom aide.

CTU’s chief of staff since 2018, Jennifer Johnson, is fluent in teacher evaluation issues, having spent four years as a union staffer dealing with the complex teacher evaluation system that fed the 2012 strike. She spent the decade before teaching history at Lincoln Park High School.

Sara Echevarria currently directs the CTU’s grievances department and is a former union field representative. She previously taught at Clemente High School.

The CTU also regularly brings in a Big Bargaining Team of about 45 CTU members working in schools all over the city in a range of jobs. If they hear something they don’t like, they write their thoughts on a note card and pass it up to the table. Other times, they’ll laugh or boo or shout.

The lawyers:

Robert Bloch in the blue shirt has represented the Chicago Teachers Union since 2010.

Chicago Teachers Union attorney Robert Bloch, as seen while picketing charter school officials in 2016

Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

Robert Bloch has represented the CTU at the bargaining table since 2010 when Sharkey’s team took office, and has made a career of negotiating for public sector unions. He has also stepped up in recent years for privately-managed charter school teachers who’ve organized. Bloch has a deep knowledge of labor law and has a reputation for being level-headed.

Thaddeus Goodchild is the CTU’s deputy general counsel.

Jim Franczek, the city’s chief Labor negotiator, with acting fire commissioner Edward Altman and Mayor Richard M. Daley on Sept. 30, 1997.

Jim Franczek, (left), has represented the city of Chicago at the bargaining table since the Richard M. Daley administration. Here he’s shown in 1997 with then-acting fire commissioner Edward Altman, and Mayor Richard M. Daley. | File photo Al Podgorski Sun-Times

Al Podgorski/Sun-Times

Jim Franczek is the city’s hired labor lawyer since the 1980s, working now under his third mayoral administration on contracts with unions all over the city. Franczek’s institutional knowledge is invaluable, and he bargains with a wry sense of humor. He’s also known to tell mayors what they don’t want to hear. Generally respected by the CTU, at 72, this is likely the last teachers contract he will negotiate.

Paul Ciastko has been CPS’ top in-house labor lawyer since 2018 though he’s worked in the Law Department for several years.

Nicki Bazer chairs the education law side of Franczek’s law firm that represents schools. She used to work at the Illinois State Board of Education, as its general counsel. Sally Scott, also at Franczek, has spent her legal career representing management in public and private sectors.

Lightfoot’s requests to join the bargaining have yet to be accepted.

Meanwhile, she dispatched as her representative Michael Frisch, who’d been her right-hand man at Mayer Brown, her previous law firm. Frisch, 37, is brand-new to bargaining; before joining Lightfoot’s administration as senior advisor and legal counsel, he worked for the U.S. Federal Trading Commodities Commission.

“I’ve known her for a long time,” Frisch said. “I know how she thinks.”

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