Jeff Tweedy, others from Chicago music scene side with Old Town School of Folk Music teachers in contract fight

The teachers want four seats on the school’s board of directors.

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Jeff Tweedy, of Wilco, performs during the Obama Foundation Summit at the Illinois Institute of Technology on the South Side on Oct. 29, 2019.

Jeff Tweedy in October 2019

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Teachers from the Old Town School of Folk Music on Wednesday announced support from across the Chicago music industry — including the backing of Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy — in their effort to secure a union contract that includes four seats on the nonprofit organization’s board.

Tweedy and his son, Spencer Tweedy, who’s also a musician, were among 70 people who signed a letter supporting the teachers, union leaders announced Wednesday.

Others who signed the letter include Frank Hamilton, who co-founded the Old Town School in 1957 but is no longer affiliated; Ray Quinn, owner of the music venue Martyrs’; and Dan Apodaca, talent buyer at Schubas Tavern, another North Side music hall.

The letter reads, in part: “Democracy in the workplace is a foundational and cherished idea for teachers and students drawn to a school that arose from the pro-worker legacies of Woody Guthrie and Ella Jenkins, Bess Lomax Hawes and Win Stracke. The Old Town School of Folk Music should be a shining example of democratic governance for arts organizations everywhere.”

During a virtual news conference Wednesday, Hamilton called the teachers the “lifeblood of the school” whose voices on the board would benefit everyone.

“Some of them have been here a long, long time and they know the workings of the school better than almost anybody,” he said.

The board is composed of 19 members and five officers.

Old Town School CEO Jim Newcomb expressed concern that designating board seats for teachers would affect the board’s independence.

“We want to have a body that is separate, that is able to thoughtfully oversee strategic and financial decisions,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times on Wednesday.

A possible alternative, Newcomb said, would be forming “working groups” that would allow teachers to join “small groups charged with looking into and solving a specific problem.”

Chris Walz, a teacher at the school who also leads the union, said the board seats were a “linchpin” of contract negotiations that have been ongoing for 18 months. A mediator recently joined the negotiations.

“We feel that teacher input and teacher advice and teacher perspective on all levels is only going to be helpful to the overall decision-making process of the school, making it a stronger, more viable, more vibrant institution going forward,” Walz said. “We see this as an absolute necessity, and it is the thing we are going to continue working towards in order to form a true, complete partnership with the administration and the board of directors.”

In January 2019, teachers at the school voted 141-7 in favor of forming a union under the umbrella of the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

The school employs as many as 300 teachers, depending on class offerings. The union refused to say how many teachers are members.

The union also is negotiating over pay and benefits.

The Old Town School of Folk Music holds a warm spot in the hearts of thousands who’ve attended concerts there or learned to play an instrument at the school.

The school has two main locations, one in Lincoln Park and one in Lincoln Square.

Leadership at the school faced a backlash in 2019 when it considered selling the Lincoln Park location.

Walz held the controversy up Wednesday as an example of a decision-making process that would have gone completely differently had teachers been on the board and part of the process.

At the moment, the school’s classes are mostly held online due to the pandemic.

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