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Chicago Teachers Union's Joey McDermott Fights to Serve on Sayre LSC

 Chicago Teachers Union field rep Joey McDermott said a state law prohibiting CPS employees from serving on Local School Councils shouldn't apply to teachers on a leave of absence.
Chicago Teachers Union field rep Joey McDermott said a state law prohibiting CPS employees from serving on Local School Councils shouldn't apply to teachers on a leave of absence.
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DNAinfo/ Mark Konkol

GALEWOOD — Joey McDermott fights.

"I don't do yoga to start my morning,” he says. "I box.”

In fact, on the right day you can catch him at the Mercy Home's boxing gym sparring with 4th Ward Ald. Will Burns.

At work, the Chicago Teachers Union field rep's best days are the ones that involve verbal battles with principals over teachers' rights.

And nothing gets his Irish up more than Mayor Rahm Emanuel's position on funding public education, charter schools and school closings, among other things.

Maybe you remember McDermott from CNN's "Chicagoland."

He was the fired-up guy at a public hearing on plans to close Manierre Elementary who predicted, "Because of what he's doing to our schools, the people of Chicago are going to stand up and say to Rahm Emanuel, 'Hasta la vista. See you later.'”

So, it was no surprise when McDermott told me he plans to go down swinging over a Chicago Public Schools decision that declared him ineligible to the term he was elected to serve on the Local School Council at his daughter's school.

The CPS Law Department sent McDermott a letter explaining that even though he has been on leave since 2010 while working for the CTU, the former Crane High School teacher remains employed by the Board of Education.

And according to a 1988 state law, that status makes him ineligible to serve on the LSC at Sayre Elementary in Galewood unless he resigns as a teacher by June 30, CPS lawyers told him in emails. The same rules don't apply to teachers at city charter schools, because charter school teachers are not Chicago Public Schools employees.

While McDermott doesn't get paid or receive benefits from CPS, his employment status does preserve his tenure, sick days and pension benefits until he either returns to the classroom or quits.

"I seriously contemplated resigning my leave of absence from the board until I found out I wouldn't [get] pension years of credit,” he said.

The fact that McDermott appears to be on the wrong side of a state law has only strengthened his resolve to fight the decision.

McDermott repeatedly asked for a hearing to argue against the CPS Law Department's interpretation of the 26-year-old law that he says wasn't meant to stop a parent in his situation from serving on an LSC.

"This decision is politically motivated and indicative of the suppression of dissension within the Chicago Public Schools. "This decision by the Board is the antithesis of the spirit of the 1998 school reform act,” he said.

"I am an employee of the CTU. My salary is paid for from the union dues of the teachers. I am not subject to being disciplined by the Board, I am not paid a dime by the Board, and I don't take any directives from one person at the Board.”

McDermott said he believes CPS is trying to block him from a seat on the Local School Council at the request of Sayre leadership, with which he's had a few disagreements over the years.

"They absolutely don't want me to be on the LSC, and that's what is motivating all of this,” McDermott said. "I'm there as a parent. I work for the CTU, and I'm very happy that 99 percent of the time my personal beliefs line up with the position of CTU leadership, which is to fight for better public education.”

Sayre Principal Suzana Ustabecir didn't return calls seeking comment. And CPS spokesman Joel Hood said McDermott didn't properly challenge the ruling in time to get a hearing.

McDermott said he wanted to "call the guy who wrote the law and see what he thinks about all this.”

So, I did.

Retired Sen. Arthur Berman, who was the principal Democratic sponsor of the 1988 Chicago school reform legislation, said McDermott's dispute, along with the growing number of charter schools in Chicago, are good reasons for state lawmakers to take another look at the law.

"The whole purpose of Local School Councils was to give broad representation to community groups. That's why students, community people, principals and teachers are on there,” Berman said.

"What you have here [with McDermott] is a unique employment situation that we didn't consider. I don't think we ever thought about what would happen with [a teacher on leave]. I think a judge would have to interpret the intention of the wording in the statute.

"And [rules about] charter school [teachers on LSC boards] definitely should be debated and get attention because of the role they play in the total picture of CPS today.”

Said Hood: "CPS is following the Local School Council laws as laid out by the Illinois General Assembly and is not required to grant a hearing to any LSC candidate outside the formal challenge process.”

McDermott isn't happy about that.

"I don't think about how can I forget about it now and move on,” he said. "It's more like how can I think about it and get mad and fight it.”

McDermott said he plans to circulate a petition, lobby state lawmakers and demand a new LSC election.

"When I turned in my forms, I was told my status was not going to be a problem, and if it was a problem we'd settle it later,” McDermott said. "Now they don't want to settle it later. If I would have known it would have been a problem, I would have had my wife run.”

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