Residents Make Chicago Board of Ed Face the Music

Griffin Bur

Brighton Park residents protest school budget cuts outside the Chicago Board of Education on Thursday (Griffin Burr). (Courtesy of Griffin Bur)
Early Thursday morning, approximately 200 residents of Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood demonstrated in front of the Chicago Board of Education. Theirs was the latest in a wave of resistance to a spate of upcoming budget cuts to neighborhood schools that will go into effect this fall. According to a statement from the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council (BPNC), which coordinated the event, “there will be a loss of over $7.5 million in funding, 40 teaching positions, and two dozen non-teaching positions in the Brighton Park community for all schools for the next year.”     Last month, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) released draft budgets to schools that are based on a new, per-pupil funding formula. Though the draft budgets have yet to be finalized, they’ve ignited opposition from Local School Councils and community members. Critics say that the cuts are based on faulty enrollment formulas and will deepen the pain of black and Latino communities, who are already impacted disproportionately by the school closings announced earlier this year. Brighton Park demonstrators chanted, Rahm, let’s face it, these budget cuts are racist!” Yesterday’s protests mobilized specifically around the loss of Thomas Kelly High School’s renowned band program, and band members were in attendance and played from their repertoire throughout the demonstration. They also led the march around the block to the CPS Office of Access and Enrollment. Mark Jungo, a 10th grade student at Kelly, isn’t in the band, but he said he was nonetheless concerned about the broad effect of cuts, worrying that cutting extracurricular programs might make fellow students more susceptible to gang activity.
Anita Caballero, a community resident and the president of the BPNC’s Board of Directors, told In These Times that Brighton Park dwellers simply want the same educational opportunities for the community’s youth that previous generations had. “We know that the people on [Chicago Public Schools] Board and [Chicago Board of Education President] David Vitale had good educations, because they have these seats and positions on the Board that they do today,” Caballero says. “Why won’t they let our kids have that education?” Roughly 30 of the demonstrators in attendance were wearing shirts bearing the logo of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). Yessenia Cervantes, an organizer with CTU, attended to show solidarity with the union members who will lose their jobs as a result of the cuts. She expressed an ethos typical of the recent progressive uprising within the CTU—namely, that the CTU’s fight is not just for better pay, but for an end to every aspect of neoliberal school reform and its pernicious effects on students. “This is just one part of Rahm Emanuel’s broader attack on public services,” says Cervantes. “And we will continue to fight every such attack.” María Díaz-Cisneros echoed that sentiment. As a parent of three students at Burroughs Elementary School, as well as a Local School Council member, she’s critical of what she calls the “say one thing and do another” attitude of the Emanuel administration’s school policy. “You know, they say they care a lot about health and being fit and then they cut our health teacher,” she told In These Times. “Rahm said that they weren’t going to cut librarians, and then, like a week later, we lose our librarian. In the long run, I think this is going to have a really negative impact on low-income families and will lead to an increase in crime.” Patrick Brosnan, the executive director of BPNC, says that prior to the demonstration, the group had invited CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett to an upcoming community meeting, which she had declined. CPS has attributed the cuts to a drop in enrollment. In an e-mail statement, CPS Chief Communications Officer Becky Carroll said: Kelly High School’s enrollment next year will decrease by 250 students; this will result in an automatic reduction in funding, because of this enrollment drop. With a lower enrollment, they will also lose federal and state poverty funding and special education funding that was tied to those students […] CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett shares the frustration many schools are experiencing today […but] without pension reform the District will face devastating cuts in the future.  CPS needs parents, local school councils, elected officials and school communities to join us as partners […] But Brosnan isn’t convinced. “They play these budgetary games every year,” Brosnan told In These Times. “They always project the enrollment down but they’re not using actual demographic analysis. Every year they end up revising it after school starts.” Brosnan’s skepticism reflects CPS’s history of questionable enrollment projection methods, as documented by the independent newsmagazine Catalyst. Like many demonstrators on Thursday, Brosnan noted a strong link between community safety and funding for public services. “For example, ideally a school like Kelly should have five post-secondary counselors. But at least [before the cuts] we had one. And now that position is eliminated,” Brosnan says. “In my mind, [counseling and college prep services] are violence prevention. But Mayor Emanuel talks about them like they’re all separate things.”
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Griffin Bur is a Summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times.
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