Disharmony at the Old Town School 

Categories: Chicago Reader

The new teachers’ union fears the administration is treating them like commodities, not inspirations.

By Mark Guarino

Since it opened in 1957, the Old Town School of Folk Music has survived economic downturns, social upheavals, and disco. But in 2020 it faces perhaps its biggest challenge yet. After years of internal strife that have pitted the faculty against the administration and board—they’ve fought over transparency, unfair pay structures, and management decisions, among other things—the teachers are attempting to secure their first-ever union contract.

When the faculty union formed in January 2019, one of its highest priorities was to address the inequities and turmoil that had festered during the 12-year tenure of executive director Bau Graves, who stepped down that same month. By the time of his exit, the Old Town School had run up a budget deficit of nearly $1 million, pushed out legacy staff, and suffered a plunge in student enrollment.

The school had also tarnished the community goodwill that’s long been a key part of its success. In September 2018 the OTS had weathered its first-ever public-relations crisis—a self-inflicted wound caused when it announced, without so much as a feasibility study to share, a plan to sell its historic Armitage location in Lincoln Park. In response to all of this and more, the 114-member teaching staff voted to unionize as part of the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT).

Though negotiations between the administration and the IFT started last year, the union remains without a contract. Teachers say this leaves them in limbo, a situation whose precariousness hurts even worse during a pandemic. Many teachers interviewed for this article say the administration is treating them as adversaries and mounting an aggressive campaign to intimidate them, which directly contradicts the founding spirit of the school—teachers are supposed to be the lifeblood of the OTS, its heart and identity, not merely commodities.

One teaching artist, who asked not to be identified, calls the administration’s behavior “bullying” and says that unionization “brought about all this corporate-defense shit into the equation, which is something we never had to deal with before.”

When bargaining for the first time with a union, employers commonly strike a newly aggressive posture, says Robert Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a national expert on labor unions, workplace practices, and labor and employment policy. “That’s why only a quarter of bargaining units ever succeed” in ratifying a contract, he says. “Getting that first contract can be a real battleground.”

“The employer is obligated by law to negotiate . . . but it just has to be enough to appear not to be breaking the law,” Bruno explains. “There’s nothing that compels them to reach an agreement. Under these conditions, an employer can drag it out for quite some time, and their intent might be to never sign a contact.”

My request for an interview to Old Town School CEO Jim Newcomb was forwarded to Old Town School marketing director Dave Zibell, who contacted senior staff at the Reader to suggest, without presenting evidence, that I would not treat the school fairly in this story. Newcomb would only respond to prepared questions via e-mail.

Newcomb says the characterization of management’s stance as aggressive is “untrue.”

“Negotiations between the administration and the union are ongoing in a thoughtful and respectful manner,” he says. “We have had bumps in the road, but things are going pretty smoothly at the moment.”

In February 2019, one month after the teachers’ union was certified by the National Labor Relations Board, the Old Town School announced that it would conduct a nationwide search for a new executive director. Newcomb, who’d stepped down from the board that January, became interim CEO of the school “while the search process is conducted for the permanent executive leadership,” according to the announcement.

That didn’t happen. In May 2020, the school announced that Newcomb’s position would be permanent.

Newcomb had been in the market for a new job. An executive at Boeing for 16 years, he’d left that company in May 2018. He says he then started a small consulting business and “took on a few contracts.” He already had years of experience serving on the boards of Chicago arts organizations, and he’d shepherded several volunteer projects.

Why the school didn’t stick to its promise to conduct a national search is unclear. Newcomb says the board “conducted an assessment of the role with a third-party consultant,” and part of that process was an evaluation of his interim leadership. After “stakeholder conversations,” he was offered the job.

Newcomb has no direct arts-management experience on his resumé, but it may not have been necessary—whereas the role of executive director has existed since the school opened its doors, he’s its very first CEO. The distinction, he explains, “was more to make a break from the executive-director role for the interim phase.”

Yet the title “CEO” has a specific meaning in the arts-management world, and suggests the organization is adopting a bottom-line-driven model, says Richard Beasley Maloney, director of New York University’s graduate program in performing arts administration, where he’s also an associate professor.

“It signals to stakeholders that [the board] is pursuing a more business approach,” he says. “But it is also very unusual for a board member to then become the chief executive. Usually board members are brought in for certain areas of expertise, like marketing or fundraising, or they’re politically connected. They usually don’t manage 30 or 40 artists for their day job.”

C.J. Hawking, executive director of Arise Chicago, a nonprofit organization that partnered with the IFT to help organize OTS faculty, says the title is at odds with the purpose of the school. “Not-for-profits have executive directors at the top. The fact that the board allowed the title to be CEO conveys a profit-driven model that flies in the face of the essence of Old Town.”

The school has yet to publish its 2019 financials on its website, but Newcomb says they’ve been audited—the board approved that audit in September. “We are not in crisis at the moment. We did a little better than break even on operations” last year, he claims. He only expects the overall 2019 numbers to reflect “a small loss.” “It’s been hard, but I am proud of how our staff and faculty have responded,” he says.

When Newcomb’s position became permanent in 2020, he had to contend with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which forced 90 percent of the school’s classes to go virtual, emptied its profitable concert calendar, and forced it to furlough some staff.

Even before Newcomb came aboard, one of the issues facing the school was fair pay. Teaching faculty at the OTS are hourly workers. The highest earners among them receive an average of $45.30 per hour per group class and $37.30 per hour for teaching privately. Those numbers represent 21 percent and 19 percent increases, respectively, since 2010. Yet according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, the average increase in hourly earnings for private employees during the same time period is 32 percent. The teachers have not had a pay raise since January 2018.

The hourly structure has its pitfalls. Old Town teachers are only paid for hours of “in-class teaching,” not time spent to prepare for classes or interactions with students between classes, says musician and OTS teacher Dona Benkert. “Most adult classes are 80 minutes, so that’s what we’re paid for,” she says.

As in-person teaching has moved online, work time spent outside class has increased, says musician and teacher Chris Walz, the union president. For years teachers have had to market their own classes, and now they’re also creating video tutorials, answering e-mails, sending out recordings, and serving as their own IT person when things go wrong. The nature of virtual learning means that the school can take advantage of larger class sizes. In-person classes averaged around 12 students, but online they can grow to 18, sometimes with students from around the world. “The workload is heavier,” Walz says. “Every single teacher has been knocking their brains out.”

What unions members say is frustrating is that pay for top administrators is far higher. The last salary Graves received was $253,554 annually, and Newcomb says he was hired at $225,000. That’s the equivalent of more than $108 per hour for a full year of 40-hour weeks—and even full-time OTS teachers top out at 18 hours per week. (Newcomb has reduced his salary to $175,000 to assist the school “through the COVID crisis,” he says.) According to the school’s 2017 tax return, three other administrators besides Graves earned six-figure salaries at the time. In 2018 administrative salaries totaled $647,573, according to the most recent financial statements available.

The union says dumping so much revenue into the salaries of a few is wrong. “The public would be shocked to know how low the salaries are for the faculty,” says Hawking. “There are teachers struggling to survive on meager wages while top administrators and an administrative-heavy organization have steady incomes and steady healthcare.” (Teachers can receive health insurance and paid time off through the school, but only if they reach 18 teaching hours per eight-week session.)

“It’s heartbreaking and it’s infuriating,” says ten-year veteran teacher Renee Nanzer. She claims that OTS administrators have made it clear that their own salaries are not up for discussion—”even though it’s obvious it’s where a lot of the money goes to.”

“I haven’t heard any defense of why they earn the type of money they do,” she says. “I wouldn’t argue what they do is more valuable than Chris Walz or the rest of us.”

Central to the Old Town School’s founding principles is the bond created between teacher and student. Teaching there carries prestige, but the school gains prestige in return by retaining beloved teachers—many of whom are considered experts in their fields.

Teachers claim the school is driving them out because of a largely unfounded paranoia that they aren’t loyal—the school is trying hard to safeguard the prestige conferred upon it by teachers, in other words, and its efforts seem to be backfiring.

This past May, when piano, voice, and guitar teacher Lindsay Weinberg decided to skip her next session, the school noticed that her students did not sign up for lessons with other OTS teachers. Without any further evidence, the administration subjected her to an official investigation, presuming that she had solicited her students for private lessons outside the school. She denies this.

The school demanded access to Weinberg’s personal Gmail account. When she refused, it tried to get her to sign a legal document that, among other things, would have forbid her from providing “any musical instruction or lessons on behalf of myself or any other third party other than through the school as long as I remain affiliated with the school as an instructor.”

Weinberg considered this approach an insult to her 15 years of devotion to the school. She decided to resign. OTS faculty see that incident, combined with the issuance of cease-and-desist letters to other teachers (an unprecedented step, as far as anyone interviewed for this story knows), as destructive of trust between the administration’s executive team and the school’s teachers. They also suspect that the investigation of Weinberg was a way to harm the union, since she was its copresident.

“We all felt really hopeful until what happened with Lindsay,” says Nanzer. “You can’t demand trust—you have to earn it. [Newcomb is] at the foothills of the mountain in that process.”

Walz says the situation exemplifies how the administration devalues teachers. Students tend to leave when teachers leave, he says, because they share a bond that students “can’t get anywhere else and now is part of the rest of their life.” The loyalty of Weinberg’s students does not constitute evidence that she was trying to peel them away from the school. The student-teacher bond is the paradigmatic Old Town School experience, one that’s been at its core from the beginning—and it’s why, Walz insists, the school needs to work to retain teachers rather than ostracize them.

Newcomb says the school has had a policy in place “for decades” that reads, “Employees are prohibited from soliciting any client of the school for services the school provides, for personal gain, or support of another person or organization.”

“We expect our faculty to teach Old Town School students at or through Old Town School and not anywhere else,” he says. He would not comment on the Weinberg investigation.

The agreement that Weinberg refused went significantly further, forbidding her from teaching outside the school at all, regardless of whether her hypothetical students had ever enrolled at the Old Town School. And teachers say the rule Newcomb cites is ambiguous and doesn’t address several long-standing realities—like OTS students who decide on their own to follow a departing teacher. They have reason to worry that the school will take aggressive action in such situations, assuming that the teacher solicited those students for private lessons before leaving.

Teachers are also concerned about the overtones of the administration’s statements to the union in contract negotiations—they think the school may try to forbid teachers from earning outside income by booking gigs or recording sessions. Weinberg says the situation reflects a board that’s uninformed about how musicians earn their livings in the gig economy.

“Plenty of people teach classes at the school and teach privately. This is just standard for every single teacher. The people in charge of the school haven’t been around very long, and I don’t know if they understand that this is just common practice,” she says. “It’s not that [the teachers] are trying to get away with anything.”

Bruno from UIC characterizes the administration’s demands as “draconian” and “way beyond what an employer would have a right to do” when dealing with, say, adjunct employees at a college or university.

Under different circumstances, Bruno explains, “An employer would have a right to require that the employee sign an agreement” they could not take outside work. But that “is something that’s far more prevalent with full-time employees.”

Another new demand by the administration is to own all intellectual property that teachers make for their OTS students—lesson plans, song charts, video tutorials, and more. “It’s a pretty complex topic that we are discussing as part of union negotiations,” Newcomb says, “and we expect to have a final, nuanced approach that works for all parties.”

Bruno says such a demand “is not unusual,” but it’s more common when employees are using intellectual property paid for or created by the employer, such as professional development materials or computer software. “I doubt that would withstand any kind of legal challenge,” he says of the Old Town School’s proposal.

The union and the administration both characterize the same union demand—to have four teachers on the school’s 36-person board—as a deal breaker. The union says the move would improve the board’s institutional memory and add the valuable perspectives of their members, who are closest to the OTS community, to any conversations about important decisions—such as selling the Armitage building.

“We’re the best caretakers of the school and have direct contact with our clientele,” says Nanzer. “We all have a vested interest in making sure the place is around for another 60 years. What are they so afraid of?”

Newcomb says giving faculty voting rights on the board “raises substantial conflict-of-interest concerns. Employees do not typically participate in nonprofit boards for this reason.”

Teachers worry that the board is actively aligned against their interests in part due to the presence of lawyer Mike Warner as a member. He’s managing partner with Franczek, a downtown firm specializing in labor and employment law that’s best known for representing the City of Chicago, the Chicago Public Schools, McCormick Place, and the Chicago Park District in contract negotiations with their own unions.

Newcomb says that since the union formed, Warner has helped the school “negotiate favorable rates with his firm” for labor counsel, and that the administration consults with him and others “on discrete issues, to make sure the school’s human-resources functions remain legally compliant.”

The issue of representation is at the center of the standstill. While the school says giving teachers voting power on the board is a conflict of interest, teachers say it’s the only way they can preserve the integrity of the school’s relationship with the community as well as their own destinies.

Beasley Maloney of NYU says it’s the exception, not the rule, when artists are on the boards of organizations where they work. But things have changed over the past two years, he says. “With the environment we are living in right now, boards are becoming very aware of transparency, diversity, and communication—the focus on those issues has skyrocketed.”

“If your stakeholders do not believe the organization is acting in a transparent manner and/or your board and senior management do not reflect the people who attend the school or who live in the community, the organization has work to do,” he says.

Board member Ernest Dawkins, a famed jazz saxophonist and composer, says he’s hopeful the Old Town School is headed for better days. “I want [the school] to be more inclusive and diversified in its relationship to the ever-growing and changing world, and I think they made strides with going online,” he says. He believes the potential for more outreach is limitless. “Outside the institution, their name speaks for itself. And they have a very strong brand.”

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