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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Jan 31, 2012, 8:00 am

Chicago Mayor’s Facebook Town Hall Leaves Teachers, Parents Venting

BY Kari Lydersen

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Last week Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel held a "Facebook Town Hall," part of his goal, as stated during the event, of "mak(ing) sure I continue to hear the voices of the people…what’s troubling to them, do they have a solution to a problem that I can carry into the office."

The town hall focused on education, and it was probably not coincidental that it came during the early stages of negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union – with whom Emanuel has been engaged in bitter public fights over a longer school day, school closings and a focus on nonunion charter schools.

As video streamed live online, the mayor answered just a handful of questions culled from about 150 submitted earlier via Facebook. The questions were read by an adult moderator and two student journalists at George Westinghouse College Prep, a new school on the city’s impoverished west side. Emanuel’s remarks painted a hopeful picture, stressing his administration’s dedication to putting students first, holding teachers accountable and replacing failing schools with creative new institutions with specialized curricula.

The teachers, students and parents commenting in the Facebook chat room during the event were not buying it, however. "What a strokefest," said one commenter near the end of the town hall, which lasted under 50 minutes despite many people’s understanding that the event was scheduled for two hours.

Emanuel stressed the point that Chicago’s school day and school year are among the country’s shortest, and advocated strenuously for the 7.5-hour school day that has been a bone of contention with the teachers union, members of which say they aren’t being offered adequate pay, prep time or resources to handle a longer day.

Parents in the chat room questioned whether students or teachers can really handle the longer day; a parents movement has been calling for a 6.5-hour day.

"How are classroom teachers able to cope with the extra minutes—(special needs) kids can barely get through the day now, and classroom teachers have to deal with more of this misbehavior?" asked one father.

Emanuel briefly addressed the ongoing contract negotiations, saying Chicago teachers are "among the best paid in the nation, and they deserve it." He then went on to make a veiled dig at the union, saying: "I will not allow another contract to occur that leaves our kids on the side of the road. No one can point to the shortest school day in the country and say that’s in the interest of our kids." His main criteria in evaluating a new contract, he said, is asking "Is that contract good for children? Everyone knows what the last contract got for adults…"

He similarly took a jab at AFSCME Local 31, with which he’s been battling over budget cuts and layoffs of union members at libraries, mental health clinics and other public workplaces. Library closings were recently scaled back and some laid-off union librarians have the chance to go back to work.

Answering a question about library closings from the student moderator, Emanuel said, "I had to work something out with AFSCME, the union, after six weeks of discussion that went nowhere because they were trying to use the libraries to achieve other things in the budget…the libraries are not for anybody but our children and our residents…they are not the – I don’t want to say playground – but they are not for the control of an individual element of our city."

People in the chat room complained about Emanuel not answering questions submitted on Facebook—like "How can you expect to keep quality educators in CPS when they see you blatantly violate their contract by refusing to implement a contractually negotiated raise?" and "Doesn't closing schools add instability to children's lives?"

Facebook commenters during the town hall mocked Emanuel for being out of touch with the school system. "No one at CPS ever noticed the website wasn't in Spanish too? Pathetic," said one commenter, as Emanuel admitted he didn’t know the website was English-only and promised to remedy the problem. (On Friday, January 27, this page was added to the site noting that the site is now available in Spanish, thanks to Google Translate.)  

As Emanuel advocated for a summer reading program, one teacher said that a CPS summer reading program has been going on for years. They also attacked his plan for more summer school, noting that temperatures get dangerously hot in old Chicago schools in the summer, and questioning whether the private school Emanuel’s kids go to is air-conditioned.

Controversy over the longer school day, teacher layoffs, curbs on tenure and other teaching issues have dovetailed with community outrage over planned school closings, with parents holding sit-ins at city hall and conflict erupting at community meetings over the closings. Media last week revealed that churches that have received big contracts from the Chicago Public Schools have been paying people to carry signs and speak out in favor of school closings, though some of the "paid protesters" espoused anti-closing views anyway or didn’t even know what viewpoint they were supposed to be promoting.

Frustrated Facebook commenters who continued chatting after the town hall ended discussed organizing for the next CPS board meeting, but noted that the meetings are always held during daytime working hours, and that you have to get in line at 6 a.m. to speak for a few minutes. They also discussed boycotting the public schools and protesting the longer day by showing up to get their kids after six and a half hours.

"The only thing that stops the longer day is a huge parent uproar, and I mean big," said one commenter.

"No one has a voice with Rahm," said another. "It’s his way or the highway. Very sad."

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism professor at Medill at Northwestern University, where she is fellowship director of the Social Justice News Nexus. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99 Percent., Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun and Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis.

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