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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Jul 24, 2013, 2:44 pm

Chicago Teachers Protest Layoffs, Chanting ‘Emanuel Has Got To Go!’

BY Kari Lydersen

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Leah Bravo (L) and Alyssa Johnson (R) were among the more than 2,000 Chicago public school employees laid off this week. They worked as language teachers at a South Side high school.   (Photo by Kari Lydersen)

Alyssa Johnson and Leah Bravo got emails around 7 p.m. on Monday telling them they no longer had jobs at John Marshall Harlan Community Academy High School on the far South Side.

“It was so impersonal,” said Bravo, a Spanish teacher, about the email saying her position no longer exists.

“It’s not about your performance, that’s what’s frustrating,” said Johnson, the school’s only French teacher. “At first I was upset for myself and my fellow employees, and then I became more outraged about how much it hurts the students. This is a rough school, the students really need us. This isn’t just a job for me, I love my students, I care about them.”

Bravo and Johnson were among several hundred teachers, parents and community members marching outside the Chicago Board of Education Wednesday morning, protesting the layoffs of more than 2,100 teachers and staff in the past week and other public school cuts. The two held pre-printed signs saying “I Am a Teacher,” with the “am” crossed out in pen and replaced with “used to be.”

The marchers protested the combined impact of the layoffs and the closings of 50 schools on students, teachers, parents and whole communities. They also blasted the city’s decision to offer $33.5 million in Tax Increment Financing (TIF) subsidies to DePaul University to build a basketball arena at the McCormick convention center on the lakefront, since TIFs divert funds that otherwise would go to schools, parks and other public institutions.

“This is a private university that has an endowment,” said Rosalie Mancera, a parent and teacher at Galileo Scholastic Academy in the Pilsen neighborhood who has been teaching in the Chicago Public Schools for 35 years. “We are taking away money from our children and cutting back on languages, arts, creating bare bones programs so that our students won’t even be qualified to go places like DePaul University.”

While no Pilsen schools are closing, Mancera said that even schools that survived “might as well have closed” because of budget cuts announced earlier this summer that are forcing principals to make tough choices about how to spend greatly reduced funds.

 “I feel bad for the principals,” said Johnson. “They’re suffering as much as us. They need to decide whether they hire back teachers, or buy books or toilet paper.”

At the Wednesday meeting, the board decided to tap a $700 million reserve fund and raise the district’s share of property taxes in order to help close their $1 billion deficit. But it doesn’t appear that will ease any of the cuts that have already been made, which schools officials blame largely on a teacher pension liability that will reach more than $600 million this year. District officials point out that they have made more than $100 million in reductions to the central office budget, but critics say it is still “top heavy,” in the words of Mary Kane, a special education teacher at William H. Ray Elementary School in Hyde Park.

“They don’t know what it’s like to be in the classroom every day,” she said. “You get these top-down edicts” that “make no sense.”

Kane’s husband is also a teacher and they have two kids in the public schools. “How can they lay off all these teachers and support personnel?” she said. “It will be chaos. You have kids who depend on us for a safe, positive environment, for some of them it’s the best part of their lives.”

Mike Williams, 54, a science teacher at Michele Clark Academy Preparatory Magnet School on the city’s West Side, noted that after 30 years teaching in the Chicago Public Schools, he feels no security in his job. One of his friends was laid off this week, and “my job is threatened every year, every year I’m nervous about my job, I have kids and a family to feed.” He has twice previously lost jobs and had to find new positions within the Chicago system. “They tell you to go to school and better yourself and study…and then they make all these cuts.”

Shameka Jones, 33, was not part of the recent layoffs but she is also out of work since she was notified in May that her position as a special education science teacher at Tilden Career Community Academy on the South Side was eliminated. She is looking for another job in the system, but she is losing hope. Her parents are retired teachers who worked in the same schools for 32 and 33 years.

“It’s not like that anymore,” Jones said. “I thought coming into education it would provide security and fulfillment. This is my third year, and I don’t feel that at all.”

While Jones is applying for other positions in Chicago, she is also in the Chicago Teachers Union internship program for organizing, to help her fight for teachers’ and students’ rights.

“This is all targeted at minority communities, because they think we won’t speak up,” she said. “But you know what, we have something for them.”

Johnson said she will likely look for work in a suburban district.

“It’s hard to take so much disrespect,” she said. “They renegotiate our contract, cut our jobs, you never know what is next. Who would want to work here anymore?”

Parents and teachers place the blame for the cuts squarely on Mayor Rahm Emanuel, along with his handpicked school board, for the layoffs, budget cuts and school closings. The protestors Wednesday morning chanted “Hey hey, ho ho, Rahm Emanuel has got to go!” and carried signs calling for his ouster.

“We just need to get rid of him,” said teachers aide Patrick Butcher. “He’s trying to put all the money in charter schools and bust the union.”

Anger at recent decisions has also invigorated long-standing calls for an elected school board in Chicago—currently the board is appointed by the mayor.

“Every one of them have connections to banks or for-profit education,” said Mancera. “What are we saying with this? The board could say, ‘Stop, we can’t conscientiously do this.’ But they won’t.” 

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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