Energy was high outside the Chicago Board of Education meeting Wednesday morning as education activists, union members, teachers, students and parents gathered in anticipation of a vote that could close a staggering amount of schools across the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district.
“All I keep hearing is ‘we’re doing this for the kids,’ but there’s not been one iota of a discussion about the educational plan,” said Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), said as she arrived for the meeting.
Protesters advocating against CPS’ plan to close 54 schools, consolidate 11 and turnaround another six provided the backdrop for Lewis as she spoke with reporters on her way into the meeting. Recent news reports say CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett plans to adjust that proposal, removing four schools off the closure list, one school from the turnaround list and opting to phase in another school closing. Marcus Garvey Elementary School; Mahalia Jackson Elementary School; Leif Ericson Elementary Scholastic Academy; and George Manierre Elementary School, would be removed from the closure list, while Clara Barton Elementary School is expected to be taken off the turnaround list. Miriam Canter Middle School’s closure will reportedly be phased in.
Wednesday’s vote comes on the heels of months of demonstrations, community meetings and public hearings against the proposal. During that time, the CTU and Lewis herself have called on residents to stand up and “fight back.”
“We have to change the governance of CPS,” Lewis said. “Clearly this sort of cowboy mentality mayoral control is out of control ... This is an extraordinarily dysfunctional bureaucracy.”
Despite the reports of revisions to CPS’ plan, activists did not deter.
Forty-nine schools still remain on the list, representing the largest wave of school closures at one time in the nation’s history.
Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the CTU, called the revisions a “slap in the face.”
Sharkey cited public hearing officers’ recommendations that 13 schools be taken off the closure list. He also referred to the suggestion from the Raise Your Hand coalition, which said 40 schools should not be included in the closure proposal.
“Basically, this is just confirmation [that] this is a politicized process that is not in the best interest of the children,” he said.
Sonya Williams, 40, the chair of Barton Elementary's local school council, said although she’s relieved her school has been spared, her “heart is very heavy.”
“These are our children, even though our school is not affected right now, these other schools still need our support,” she said, adding she had two children, ages 14 and eight, enrolled in Barton. “They shouldn’t close any schools.”
Meanwhile, the Chicago Board of Education meeting was called to order just before 11 a.m. Wednesday. CPS officials permitted access to the public only in small groups, prompting a collection of approximately 50 protesters to stage a vocal protest.
Chanting “let us in” and “Rahm, Rahm, we’re no fools. We won’t let you close our schools,” the protesters were denied immediate access and, in response, marched from CPS headquarters to block traffic along South Clark St.
After staging a short sit-in outside CPS' lobby, participants were permitted access to the meeting’s overflow room.
The Chicago Police Department kept a close eye on the demonstration, with zip-ties at the ready, but no arrests were made.
“Four schools being taken off the list is just not enough,” said Nell McNamara, communications coordinator for SEIU* Local 1, who participated in the protest outside the Board of Education meeting.
SEIU represents 2,400 custodians and lunchroom workers in the CPS district, more than 300 of which stand to lose their jobs under the school closure plan.
“We just have to keep it up and keep fighting for the schools,” McNamara said, noting she was prepared to get arrested if the situation called for it. “We’ve been out here for weeks and months protesting, not just for our workers’ jobs, but for the strong need for public education. That’s how we build a strong middle class, by educating our kids.”
As he exited the meeting, Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) called Wednesday’s public hearing a “charade.”
“This is bigger than the closure of a building, this is tearing apart our communities, the future of the city is at stake here,” he said.
Fioretti said it was “something to see” in reference to people standing up against CPS’ proposal, noting he attended roughly 20 community meetings and public hearings.
“They are dividing up neighborhoods,” he said. “What makes one school better than another school? ... This is immoral.”
As she exited the meeting, around 1 p.m., Lewis did not express confidence in the Chicago Board of Education.
“They’re going to do whatever they’re going to do,” she said.
Lewis renewed her statements that the CTU plans to campaign for new voters and canvas for new mayoral candidates. She also mentioned a push for state legislators to pass a moratorium on school closings.
“They’ve been saying it’s a done deal ... But I don’t think it’s ever over,” she said. “If you take away hope from people then they will have nothing, and I’m not in the business of taking hope away.”
Here's more from Lewis and today's protest:
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