THE WATCHDOGS: CTU allies benefit from newly enriched union foundation

SHARE THE WATCHDOGS: CTU allies benefit from newly enriched union foundation
SHARE THE WATCHDOGS: CTU allies benefit from newly enriched union foundation

When the Chicago Teachers Union rallied at Grant Park one frigid night in November, protesters from Action Now were there. So were members of community groups from Brighton Park and Kenwood, showing support for the CTU in its long-running battle with Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Activists from across Chicago long have stood together with the teachers union in its bitter feuds with Emanuel. But in only the last 1-1/2 years, financial connections have added to those ideological ties.

A newly wealthy charitable foundation formed by the CTU is funding the three groups at the November rally and many other organizations allied with the union, according to records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

Fueled by the CTU’s $48.5 million sale of a Gold Coast apartment building in 2014, the Chicago Teachers Union Foundation Inc. has handed out millions of dollars in grants.

The foundation only had assets of about $80,000 and gave just $12,000 in scholarships a couple of years ago, before receiving a huge infusion of money from the apartment building.

In 2014, the CTU’s foundation doled out about $1 million in grants, according to its federal tax returns. And the foundation increased that giving to nearly $2 million last year, labor leaders say.

Some of those contributions went to purely charitable or educational groups, including the DuSable Museum and Mercy Home for Boys and Girls. Records show hundreds of thousands of dollars from the foundation also went to groups that are highly active in the pitched policy debates between Emanuel and the CTU, which is calling for Emanuel’s resignation.

In addition to Action Now, community groups that have received funding from the foundation include:

  • Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization.
  • Brighton Park Neighborhood Council.
  • Albany Park Neighborhood Council, now known as Communities United for Quality Education.
  • Logan Square Neighborhood Association.
  • Pilsen Alliance.
  • Enlace Chicago.
  • Raise Your Hand Illinois.
  • Crossroads Fund.
  • Blocks Together.

Union leaders say members of Action Now and the Kenwood-Oakland and Brighton Park neighborhood groups joined CTU President Karen Lewis at a “solidarity rally” at Grant Park in November. The CTU members demonstrated ahead of a vote authorizing what could be their second strike in four years.

The Kenwood-Oakland organization, known as KOCO, got $30,000 from the teachers union in 2014 and $60,000 last year. The group receives another $60,000 a year from the American Federation of Teachers, whose affiliates include the CTU, according to U.S. Labor Department documents.

KOCO had the CTU’s backing when they waged a 34-day hunger strike last year to protest the Chicago Board of Education’s plans for Dyett High School. The group also had sued the Chicago Public Schools in 2013 over the closure of a record 50 schools — which the CTU also vehemently opposed.

Ald. Will Burns (4th), an Emanuel ally and frequent target of KOCO, says he didn’t know the teachers union was funding the neighborhood group.

“It doesn’t surprise me in the least bit, given the ideological consistency between KOCO and the CTU,” says Burns, an Emanuel ally. “It does cause one to ask if they are representing the community or the CTU.”

But CTU vice president Jesse Sharkey says the union doesn’t dictate the policy positions of groups it chooses to benefit from foundation funds.

“We don’t want to be a group you have to be nice to or else you won’t get our money,” Sharkey says.

KOCO executive director J. Brian Malone says he felt no pressure from the union.

“It’s not like they say ‘We’re going to pull the money if you don’t show up to this thing,’” Malone says, referring to CTU rallies attended by his group’s members.

The wellspring of the foundation’s wealth is an apartment tower the CTU built at 55 W. Chestnut in the early 1960s. The building was meant to house retired teachers at discounted rents, but few union members lived there.

In 2014, months before the sale of the building, union leaders shifted more than $8 million from the tower’s accounts to the foundation. Some of the newfound riches went toward the first round of 22 contributions.

After the apartment tower sold in October 2014, the union budgeted about half of the proceeds from the $48.5 million deal to buy and renovate a building at 1901 W. Carroll, Sharkey says. The recently acquired building on Carroll is owned by the foundation, which will have its headquarters there and lease space in the building to the CTU and another office tenant.

The foundation has the rest of the apartment tower windfall at its disposal, CTU officials say.

“We want to be around for a while, so the money won’t all go out in the first year,” says the foundation’s newly hired executive director, Carmen Curet.

Although most of the foundation’s grants were doled out locally, one of the biggest recipients — getting a total of $200,000 — is the Arizona-based Network for Public Education. The network’s co-founder and board president is Diane Ravitch, a New York University professor and nationally prominent blogger who has supported CTU in its battles with City Hall.

Ravitch says the grant money from the foundation was used to pay for teachers, parents and students to attend her group’s annual conferences and to produce a “national report card” next month grading states on how much they support public education.

The Raise Your Hand parent group, based on the North Side, got $35,000 last year and $20,000 in 2014. Raise Your Hand’s total revenue was about $56,000 in the year it received the first gift from the CTU foundation.

“It was an unsolicited grant,” says the group’s director, Wendy Katten, who often speaks out against Chicago schools’ policies.

Katten says CTU official Jackson Potter offered the grant money and she replied that Raise Your Hand would accept — “as long as you know there’s no strings attached.”

“They don’t have a role or voice in anything we do,” Katten says.

The Brighton Park Neighborhood Council has used the $75,000 it received from the foundation over the last two years for a mentoring program at Kelly High School, says Patrick Brosnan, the group’s executive director.

“CPS used to fund programs like that but they don’t anymore,” he says.

Besides joining CTU at its Grant Park rally in November, the Brighton Park activists recently protested plans for new charter schools on the Southwest Side together with teachers union members. The Emanuel-appointed Board of Education has allowed the rapid expansion of charter networks, which often employ nonunion teachers, even as officials have shuttered traditional, unionized public schools.

Brosnan says the CTU foundation cash had no bearing on his group’s positions on the latest charter-school fight or other policy issues.

“We’ve been organizing on these issues long before CTU gave us resources,” he says.

The Crossroads Fund, a nonprofit group that has received $300,000 from the teachers union foundation, passes on the money to small community organizations in the city promoting public participation in education and other policy issues, says Jeanne Kracher, the group’s executive director.

The Crossroads Fund had presented CTU leader Lewis with an award for activism in 2013.

The emergence of the CTU’s foundation as a major contributor to local groups “is a great development,” Kracher says. “We are interested in racial, social and economic justice, and they are as well.”

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