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It’s only 7:30 in this teachers’ lounge; the morning’s first cups of coffee have barely been drained, but already the teachers are outraged. The teachers at this northwest-side high school are grumbling bitterly about petty rules, dictatorial bosses, lousy wages, and a public that just doesn’t care.

“We’re out here on the front lines,” says one math teacher, “trying to tell people that the schools have some serious, serious problems. But no one listens.”

One man listening very closely is George Schmidt, an English teacher at Amundsen High School in Lincoln Square, and a reporter for Substance, the monthly newspaper devoted to school issues. Now Schmidt’s a long-shot challenger for the presidency of the 28,000-member Chicago Teachers’ Union.

Few insiders give Schmidt–who has taught for 12 years at various Chicago high schools–much chance of unseating incumbent Jacqueline Vaughn in the election today, May 20. Vaughn has more money, better name recognition, and a better-organized campaign. But Schmidt understands what most school leaders either don’t recognize or fear discussing: Chicago’s teachers–the guts, heart, and soul of the school system–are bitter, frustrated, and hungry for change.

“You can see it in their eyes,” says Schmidt. “I call it the thousand-yard stare. Their eyes are fixed on something far away, and they only register dangers. Can you blame them? They’ve been kicked around for years by an awful system.”

At the moment, Schmidt is running an underdog’s campaign. He has taken nine days off–all unpaid personal days–to deliver the same message in schools across the city: Vaughn, he charges, makes too much money (at least $63,000), is removed froth the classroom (has not taught in 20 years), and “sold us out during last year’s strike.”

“Our leadership has become a junior partner to the board,” says Schmidt, who vows to receive no more as union president than the highest-paid teacher. “They act alike; they think alike. In May and June of last year, we were told there was no money to open the schools without state aid. And so our leadership told us to mail little cards to the representatives in Springfield, and ask for aid. The state never came through with that aid, but in August we were told there is enough money in the budget so we should strike for the raises we deserve.

“The fact is that there was enough money in May and in August. But the board is using accounting tricks to cover up profits and create paper deficits that no accountant would take seriously. It’s as though you deposited your check and didn’t write it in your checkbook. It’s insanity. And yet our leadership has never once seriously examined the numbers and presented them to the public.”

For the most part, Vaughn ignores Schmidt’s campaign, let alone his charges. Her chief spokesperson, Chuck Burdeen, dismisses Schmidt as a gadfly.

“Schmidt is searching for issues that do not exist,” says Burdeen. “Mrs. Vaughn spends four mornings a week in the schools. She’s been in almost 400 schools. She keeps in touch. To the best of my knowledge, there are only 24 hours in a day–what would Schmidt do, remain in the classroom? Quite frankly, representing a 28,000-member union is not a part-time job. She knows the budget–she knows the budget better than Mr. Schmidt, whose paper [Substance], quite candidly, produces information that is flawed.”

In addition, Burdeen says Vaughn has delivered for her union’s members. “She kept the union together in the face of a 19-day strike last year,” says Burdeen of Vaughn. “She won an 8 percent raise over two years. Yes, it’s true the second phase of the raise is contingent on more funds from the state. But we don’t see any problem in getting the money. That’s a speculative thing, anyway. Will it really happen? I don’t know. You could go on and on with speculation. I mean, will we all be here tomorrow? The reality is that it’s an 8 percent raise, negotiated over two years. If the board doesn’t give us 4 percent this fall, the deal is off and we can ask for more.”

But even Burdeen acknowledges rumblings of discontent from the rank and file. Last year’s strike settlement was by no means popularly received by teachers. To make up for days lost to the strike the board abolished spring vacation and extended the school year until the last week in June. And still striking teachers lost four paid workdays. Despite Vaughn’s strong support, the contract was ratified by only 60 percent of the members who voted. The high negative vote was the result in part of a “vote no” campaign waged by Schmidt and his allies.

“The teachers lost four working days, that’s true, but the 4 percent pay hike they won will always be there,” says Burdeen. “Striking teachers have to recognize that their strike is an investment in a future contract. We recovered 80 percent of the days lost to the strike. Talk to [factory workers] who were out on strike for a month, and see if they made up any of their lost wages. If they did, it’s a miracle.

“If some people vote for Schmidt, I don’t think it’s targeted against Jacqui Vaughn. It’s a vote of anger and frustration about conditions in general.”

Most public school teachers feel they are underpaid, overworked, and unappreciated. And there seem to be plenty of reasons for teachers to complain. The highest-paid teachers make about $37,000–and that’s teachers who have a PhD and at least 15 years experience. In contrast, kids waltzing out of big-name law schools expect about $60,000 to shuffle paper for a downtown law firm.

Despite the rhetoric over the importance of the teacher’s task, there has been no sustained public outcry to raise salaries. Not once in the last 20 years has the school board offered teachers a pay hike. The union wrung each raise from the board–like drops squeezed from a damp sponge–by strikes or threats. Since 1969, the teachers have struck nine times–four times in the last five years alone. For their efforts, they have been roundly criticized in the press.

Moreover, classroom conditions have worsened in the last few years, teachers say. Class size is among the highest in the state. Unlike private or parochial schools, public school teachers cannot winnow their classrooms of underachievers, malcontents, or even, in some cases, lawbreakers. They must try to teach all comers, and often without the most rudimentary supplies–such as pencils, books, and paper.

On top of that, basic safety in many inner-city high schools is often in doubt. “Kids don’t walk, they run. The don’t talk, they yell, there’s no academic atmosphere,” says Noreen Rapp, a math teacher at Marshall High School, on the west side. “In a typical day, I deal with 175 different kids, at least. I’m just totally burned out. I need smaller classes. I need quiet.”

“It seems like every week there’s some sort of fight,” says Don Holland, a history teacher at Marshall since 1959. “Last week for the first time I saw a fight in the hall and I just walked by. Maybe it’s a sign I’m getting old. I don’t want to exaggerate. Generally our kids are good kids. If we could get rid of 50 or so real bad ones, we’d be a lot better. I keep thinking that if parents had control of their kids, we wouldn’t have so many problems.”

Supposedly supervising it all is the board of education, which most teachers regard as an enemy, not a friend. “The bureaucrats are in a world that has no relation to what’s going on in the schools,” says a 15-year veteran in an elementary school on the north side. “I’ll give you an example. They’ve been cutting back on substitutes around here. If a teacher doesn’t come in, what they do is assign another teacher, like a gym teacher, who doesn’t have a regular homeroom, to take her place for the day. They look at it as saving money by not bringing in substitutes. They don’t realize that programs are disrupted. Stuff like that happens all the time. What good does complaining do? This isn’t a democratic system. If you open your mouth, they’ll transfer you. The union’s attitude is: ‘What are you complaining about? At least you have a job.'”

Just what a union president can do about problems this massive is hard to say. Schmidt and Burdeen agree that the schools need outside help in the form of state-mandated reforms and financial assistance. At the very least, Schmidt says, his election could be a start.

The difference between the candidates reflects a contrast in style. Schmidt is an outsider. He’s never held a top union spot, but he made a name for himself battling for the rights of substitute teachers. Substance, the newspaper he helped found, has over the years challenged the union as well as the board, exposing waste and tackling tough topics (Schmidt was the first reporter to break news of the sex-with-students scandal involving former bigwig James Moffat). In 1984, Schmidt ran an insurgency campaign for the union presidency (against Robert Healey, Vaughn’s predecessor), and was soundly beaten.

The issues Schmidt pushes–smaller class size, more preparation breaks, and less paperwork for teachers–are standard union demands. In the past, however, union and board negotiators paid little more than lip service to them at the bargaining table when the talk turned to wages.

Vaughn presents herself as the more professional and less combative leader. She is an insider, having worked her way through the union ranks as one of Healey’s closest allies. She seems comfortable with other powerful leaders (former mayor Harold Washington, for instance, named her to the RTA board). The union newspaper she oversees–the Chicago Union Teacher–rarely challenges anybody. It’s filled mainly with cheery news stories and grip-and-grin photos, almost all of which prominently feature Vaughn.

There is, however, at least one front on which Schmidt is more conciliatory. Unlike Vaughn, he has vowed to work with his opponent after the election. He did the same thing in 1984, after Healey defeated him. Schmidt staunchly backed Vaughn during last year’s strike, telling reporters: “When there’s a war, you stick with the general. And Jacqui is our general.” Vaughn, however, has made no effort to include Schmidt or his allies in her circle of advisers.

Hanging over the election is the issue of race. Schmidt is white, Vaughn black; the union’s membership is almost equally split. In the past, some activists and school administrators have tried to stir blacks against the union. But these efforts failed, some teachers think, because of Vaughn’s status as an example to black women, as well as the influence teachers wield in black communities across the city. “Jacqui sets the tone; she’s an excellent leader, a role model for the students. She worked her way up through the union. With so much at stake, this isn’t the time to put some beginner in there,” says Rosalind Price Lewis, union delegate at Marshall High School and a fervent backer of Vaughn. “The community doesn’t respect the board, but they respect me. I live in the community. I work with my church. I know all the leaders here.”

School officials, some observers suspect, would prefer a raucous election because that might exacerbate racial tensions and divide the union. “I don’t doubt the board would try race baiting if I won,” Schmidt says. “But we’ve been through this before. My slate is integrated. Our candidates for vice president and treasurer are black. We are very strong with Hispanic teachers.”

Regardless of who wins, the big challenge lies ahead. Few state legislators are willing to vote the city’s schools more aid. Without more funds, school officials insist, there can be no pay increase for teachers. That attitude may lead to yet another strike next fall.

“I do not want a strike.” says Schmidt. “I don’t think we have to. The money’s there. But I know teachers are tired. They’ve heard a lot of this talk before. This is a very important decision for them. I know what they’re thinking. They look at me, and figure: ‘My kid’s college education, the mortgage, my retirement, it’s all riding on this guy or Vaughn.’ For me or Jacqui, that’s one hell of a responsibility.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lewis Toby.