LINCOLN SQUARE — Old Town School of Folk Music teachers are pushing for representation on the organization’s board of directors as they continue an 18-month-long negotiation for their first union contract.
In addition to negotiating over wages and benefits, the union also wants four seats on the nonprofit school’s board of directors, which currently has 19 members plus five officers. A mediator joined negotiations between the union and school last week, teachers said at a press conference Wednesday.
“One of our top priorities from the beginning has been the demand for shared governance at the school,” said Sam Cantor, who has taught at the school for the past five years.
Also at the press conference, the teachers they presented a public letter of support for the union’s demands signed be more than 60 artists, venue owners, talent buyers, labor organizations and academics.
“Unfortunately, faculty voices rarely count in strategic planning decisions. There is a gap between the school’s published commitment to ‘constant collaboration’ and ‘cultural democracy’ and the actual practice and cultivation of those values,” the letter reads, in part.
The signatories include Old Town School of Folk Music co-founder Frank Hamilton, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and his son Spencer, Half Gringa’s Izzy Olive, Chicago Underground Quartet’s Jeff Parker, Martyrs’ Owner Ray Quinn, The Hideout’s Program Director Sen Morimoto, and more.
“The teachers really are the lifeblood of the school, they deserve your support,” Hamilton said in a pre-recorded video during the press conference. “Unless you have a really good teaching staff you don’t have a good school.”
In a statement, school leaders said having four faculty members sit on the board raises a “significant conflict of interest” that needs to be evaluated and will be further discussed during negotiations.
“Old Town School administration looks forward to further discussing options for shared governance that do not create conflicts of interest during the upcoming mediation process,” the statement said, in part.
Teachers began organizing a drive in November 2017 to create a formalized, collective body with support from the local workers’ rights group Arise Chicago.
A year later, the teachers gave a presentation to school’s board of directors explaining their decision to unionize under the Illinois Federation of Teachers and filed formal paperwork to launch the process the following month. Teachers voted 141 to 7 in January 2019 to form the union.
The two sides began bargaining in October 2019. School and union leaders meet weekly for contact talks, according to a frequently asked questions page on the school’s website.
“We feel we are working as quickly as possible to complete the negotiations for the contract. Because this is the first contract, it will generally take longer than agreeing on a renewal, extension or follow-on contract,” the statement said.
Additionally, the school’s website says working groups focused on the growth and sustainability of Old Town began in early 2019 and union members have been involved in those since their launch.
“Teachers have an important role and valuable insights. We want their participation alongside that of program managers, department heads, volunteers and students. We keep these parties in mind when making decisions, no matter how large or small those decisions may seem,” the school’s website said.
However teachers say working groups are not a substitute for having actual seats on the nonprofit’s board of directors for “big ticket” decisions such as construction of a new building or selling one of the school’s buildings.
For example, in 2019 Old Town’s leadership reversed their decision to sell its 909 W. Armitage Ave. building after public outcry and organizing efforts from students and teachers. The school instead chose to work with its community to find solutions to declining enrollment and keep the Armitage building open.
The decision to work with the school’s community to find a solution could have happened sooner if teachers were on the nonprofit’s board, according to Chris Walz, a 24-year veteran of the school and part of the union’s bargaining team.
“Now, this is not to say that those decisions would not still have been made. But they would have been much more well-informed,” Walz said. “Going forward, I think the board has always done the best job that it can but it has lacked teacher input on decisions that have great, long-range rippling impact on teachers and the community.”
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