JUNE 'FIRE CODE' PUBLICITY STUNT NOT THE FIRST TIME: Stewart's losses in court — in case after case — and her losing ways have cost CTU members millions of dollars in lawyer costs and settlements

Marilyn Stewart President of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) in a June 7, 2010 press conference announced that the union would be filing a lawsuit challenging Chicago Public Schools proposed raising class sizes to 35.

Citing an "emergency", Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart (above, third from right) was able to assemble most of the major media (including TV cameras) in the third largest media market in the USA to cover her June 7, 2010, press conference announcing that she was filing yet another lawsuit. Standing with Stewart above are (left to right) CTU Financial Secretary Mark Ochoa, Stewart, CTU attorney Jennifer Poltrock, and CTU Recording Secretary Mary McGuire. Stewart and Ochoa are running for office (Stewart for President; Ochoa for Vice President) in the hotly contest runoff election scheduled in all Chicago public schools on June 11. McGuire is retiring. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.The basis of the case is that the proposed increase in class size would endanger the students by violating the City of Chicago's Municipal Code — specifically fire codes — that regulates occupancy in public buildings. During her June 7 press conference, Stewart repeatedly made references to restaurant and elevator occupancy signs as examples of what she was talking about. On June 8, she marched into Cook County Circuit Court with two of the union's attorneys (and a couple of reporters in tow) to actually file the case in the crowded offices of the Clerk of the Court (where hundreds of cases are filed daily in the busiest court system in the USA).

But during the June 7 press conference, in answer to reporters' question (which increased in skepticism as the event went on), Stewart was forced to admit that she had no idea how many Chicago public school classrooms might violated her version of the Minicipal Code as to fire safety rules. And she also acknowledged that many classrooms across the city had more than enough space to accommodate more students — even under her version. At Substance press time for this article (June 9, early morning), it is unclear how much evidence Stewart presented in the legal papers she filed on June 8 (if any).

CTU lawyers and publicists were everywhere during Marilyn Stewart's June 7, 2010, media event announcing the "fire code" lawsuit. Above, while reporters Linda Lutton (WBEZ) and Rosalind Rossi (Sun-Times) take notes, attorney Graham Hill (beard) stands over the reporters while CTU staff distribute more materials to the press. Standing on the right (above) is CTU publicist Rosemaria Genova. Substance photo by Joshua Griffin Schmidt.By the evening of June 8, with three days to go before teachers vote on whether Marilyn Stewart and her United Progressive Caucus remain in office, at least some corporate media reporters were speculating that the whole thing was a publicity stunt for the week before the CTU election. With the exception of the Chicago Sun-Times (which blared Stewart's version across its front page, with a story on the second page), there was skepticism. At Stewart's June 7 press conference, the union's own attorney Jennifer Poltrock, admitted to reporters that there was no precedent for such a case. There has been speculation that the law suit was only a publicity stunt, four days before the June 11, 2010 runoff vote between Stewart and her challenger Karen Lewis. Lewis, a National Board Certified chemistry teacher at King High School who is the presidential candidate of the Caucus of Rank-And-File Educators (CORE), was running a strong campaign that had forced Stewart into a runoff. Was Stewart using her power to assemble the press for a media event to promote her candidacy? The proposed lawsuit is reminiscent of a case filed by the union using the same tactics of press releases and even video footage of Ms. Stewart holding up court documents going into the courtroom asking for an injunction to protect union jobs from being lost. Case Number 2010-CH-07592 was filed on February 23, 2010 — one day before the Board of Education voted to close eight public schools using a controversial and widely dispelled turnaround policy. Turnaround is a program where entire staffs of schools — including custodians and lunch staff — are fired and replaced without regard to tenure or seniority.

At the time of the January and February 2010 turnaround hearings, it was estimated that only 300 teachers would lose their jobs in the five schools facing "turnaround" this school year. But on June 4, 2010, the number more than doubled to 700 teachers (according to press reports based on numbers provided by CPS CEO Ron Huberman). So, one week before Stewart announced she was taking CPS to court to stop increases in class sizes using the fire code, 700 teachers and others had lost their jobs on the recommendations of Ron Huberman and with Chicago Board of Education approval.

According to Court records, Chancery Court Judge Leroy Martin Jr. denied Stewart's turnaround motion last winter saying such "pre-emptive" temporary restraining orders are "not appropriate."

One of the added costs of a Marilyn Stewart publicity stung is that the union's huge staff is assembled to sit in the back rows of the union's conference room, while the reporters sit in the front to ask questions. Above, the back rows of the CTU conference room included 20 full-time union staff members, who cheered repeatedly when Stewart made a point until one of the TV reporters demanded "Who are those people?" Among those in attendance were John Ostenburg (standing in the shadow at the door under the EXIT sign, QUEST assistant Marc Wigler (to Ostenburg's left) and an official of the American Federation of Teachers who had been watching the union's financial work (far right, back). Generally, reporters covering CTU media events are focused on Stewart (who was speaking to the right at a podium when the above photo was taken) and don't notice the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of union staff who are providing the president with cheers from the back rows. At center (above) wearing red hoodie and listening to Stewart is Substance pre-kindergarten editor (and photographer) Joshua Griffin Schmidt. Griffin Schmidt is one of thousdands of CPS students facing the Huberman cuts. He completed pre-kindergarten on June 4, 2010, but instead of going into a full-day kindergarten at O.A. Thorp in September, he is facing a two-and-a-half hour half-day kindergarten because of Ron Huberman's cuts. See related stories below. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.But Stewart's loss on this year's five "turnaround" schools is not the only example of a bad legal strategy on Stewart's part — just the most recent.

In another case dating back to October 4, 2006, the CTU filed Case No. 2006-CH-20955 in front of Judge Daniel A. Riley. The lawsuit against the Chicago Board of Education and the Chicago Virtual Charter School was an effort to stop the disbursement of public funds for the city’s first virtual charter school. The suit alleged the virtual school was “home-based,” even utilizing a “home-based” curriculum which violates Illinois School Code.

“This school clearly violates the Illinois School Code as a home based charter school,” contended Stewart, in an official union press release on October 4, 2006. “We are asking the court to address this accordingly.”

The court issued summary judgment in favor of the Chicago Virtual Charter School (CVCS), dismissing the lawsuit brought by the union that claimed the charter authorized by Chicago Public Schools was illegal. In speaking with union members and even the more informed union delegates the elected union officials inside each school, no one seems to recall any announcements or updates regarding this case either in the union newspaper or in the monthly House of Delegates meetings, when the union officers are required to report union business to the membership.

The Chicago Virtual Charter School lawsuit was dismissed on June 11, 2009, one year before Stewart faces the runoff.

Stewart's legal strategy and tactics during her six years in office have not only resulted in losing cases against the Chicago Board of Education.

Throughout her second term (which began on July 1, 2007), Stewart has used union lawyers to harass or otherwise sanction union members. The most important of those cases involved CTU Vice President Ted Dallas, who was purged by Stewart from the union's leadership beginning in December 2007, less than a year after his campaign strategy had resulted in Stewart's election to a second term (in the May 2007 election).

While ignoring repeated calls to bring the matter before the union's House of Delegates (which is supposedly the union's highest decision making body beyond the membership), Stewart railroaded the firing of Dallas through the union's 50-member executive board, then presented irate House of Delegates members with a legal opinion stating that a review of the matter was none of the House of Delegates' business.

When Dallas sued to continue on the union payroll after the executive board and Stewart had him purged, he told the court that he had been elected to a three-year term of office in May 2007, and that the union had to pay him for the full term. After trying to get the case thrown out of court, Stewart's lawyers agreed to a confidential settlement, the terms of which were not supposed to be disclosed. However, in March 2010, Dallas won a partial victory when he proved to Circuit Court Judge Dorothy Kinnaird that the Chicago Teachers Union had violated the terms of the settlement, and Judge Kinnaird ordered CTU to pay Dallas an additional $100,000 because the union newspaper had violated the terms of the confidentiality agreement.

The case, including the complete decision by Judge Kinnaird, was reported exclusively at Substance News§ion=Article

The loss of the additional $100,000 to the CTU was never reported in the union newspaper, which devoted space in April and May 2010 to more than 40 photographs of Marilyn Stewart and her 2010 running mate, Mark Ochoa.

Nor was the expense of the cases against Dallas (and Treasurer Linda Porter) outlined for the union's members in the budget presented by Stewart to the union's House of Delegates in May and debated (to be passed by the slimmest majority vote) in June 2010. The cost of the various iterations of "Stewart's Folly" (as some critics are beginning to refer to the lawsuits Stewart has been filing — and losing) will remain a secret from the CTU membership until after the June 11 runoff election.

In an earlier use of lawyers against a union officer, Marilyn Stewart sent CTU lawyers to CTU Treasurer Linda Porter during Christmas vacation 2008 to demand that Porter sign an agreement to leave the union and not to participate in union activities until after the 2010 union election. As reported exclusively at SubstanceNews, Porter not only refused to be intimidated by Stewart, but provided the public with copies of the legal documents Stewart had the union's attorneys draft at union expense to try and remove Porter from Stewart's cabinet. When she was unable to remove Porter as she had Dallas, Stewart, claiming that she had the power as "Chief Executive Officer" of the CTU, stripped Porter of her duties as treasurer, forcing Porter to remain in her office at CTU headquarters without any duties, including those outlined in the CTU Constitution and By-Laws.

Porter was the only officer not present during Stewart's June 7, 2010, media event.


June 9, 2010 at 10:50 AM

By: Debby Pope

high school teacher

The problem I see with Marilyn's firecode lawsuit is not that there is anything wrong with that as part of our arsenal... not at all. We need to use every approach. Of course teaching and learning are at the CORE (pardon the pun)of what we must be about but, safety is vital as well. The problem with her lawsuit is that it isn't one aspect of a broad range of strategies to mobilize the teachers and communities... it's a campaign stunt. Still, I would not rag on it in and of itself.

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