While the Chicago Board of Education was voting to approve an overwhelmingly reduced budget for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) on Wednesday, roughly 500 protesters descended upon City Hall to demand Mayor Rahm Emanuel bring in an elected school board and “answer to the people whose lives he is turning upside down.” Progress Illinois was there for the action.
While the Chicago Board of Education was voting to approve an overwhelmingly reduced budget for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) on Wednesday, roughly 500 protesters descended upon City Hall to demand Mayor Rahm Emanuel bring in an elected school board and “answer to the people whose lives he is turning upside down.”
Participating in the demonstration, which took place on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, were at least 50 CPS students who boycotted the district and didn’t attend class for the day to protest school closings and budget cutbacks. The first day of school for the CPS 2013-2014 academic year was Monday.
“It’s time to make a stand and support public education in our city,” said Rachel Lessem, whose eight year-old daughter, Dalya, did not go to class at A.N. Pritzker School, at 2009 W. Schiller St. on Chicago’s Northwest Side, and instead participated in the downtown protest.
“It’s important for her learn about civic engagement,” she said. “The education she’s getting from seeing people take a stand for what’s important and what’s right is invaluable.”
Lessem said Pritzker was “lucky” in that the school only experienced about $180,000 in budget cuts for the new academic year, and the principal managed to retain all of the school’s teaching positions.
“But it’s going to be a very bare-bones budget and they’re not buying new textbooks,” she said. “You can’t expect schools to achieve and meet the needs of students when you slash their budgets.”
The newly-passed $5.6 billion CPS budget for next year, slashes $68 million from classroom spending, almost completely empties the district’s reserves and raises property taxes to the highest possible level.
The district, which is reporting a $1 billion deficit and $400 million increase in pension obligations, also closed 48 elementary schools across Chicago last summer and fired more than 3,000 teachers and school employees.
“The civil rights movement was not comfortable for the establishment in 1963, and it’s not going to be comfortable for them today,” said Jitu Brown, education organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), who helped organize the CPS boycott. “Today is already a victory because people have already come together ... People know in their gut this isn’t right and they know in their gut children deserve better.”
Brown said, in addition to CPS students boycotting classes on Wednesday, he and other activists would also no longer attend Chicago Board of Education meetings where, he claimed, members of the school board don’t listen to the members of the public.
“Today is a civics lesson for every young person that participates. We don’t have to play by their rules,” he said. “We’re not going to any more of these bogus board meetings, where what you have to say doesn’t mean anything.”
He called the district-wide budget cuts “insulting” and demanded the resignation of every member of the Chicago Board of Education:
As thousands of students are attending new schools this year, Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale congratulated educators and district officials on Wednesday for a “first-class” kick-off to the academic year.
“If that’s a first-class day of school, I would hate to see a second-class,” said Brown, who pointed to a transformer explosion at Irvin C. Mollison Elementary, a designated welcoming school after nearby Anthony Overton Elementary School was shuttered in June, in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood of Bronzeville.
After CPS installed new air conditionings in Mollison’s building — a promise for every welcoming school— the transformer failed around 11 a.m. on Tuesday. The school’s roughly 600 students were forced to evacuate, amid 90-degree temperatures, and classes were cancelled for the day. Electricity was restored to the building by late Tuesday night and classes resumed for students who didn’t participate in the boycott on Wednesday.
“The building was not ready,” said Jeanette Taylor, president of the Local School Council at Mollison, who called the school closures “chaos” and accused CPS of not living up to its promises of “smooth sailing” during students’ transition to new schools.
Taylor was one of several participants in Wednesday’s protest to call for the passage of HB 2793, sponsored by State Rep. Elgie Sims (D-Chicago), which would amend the Chicago School District Article of the School Code and provide for the election, instead of appointment, of members to the Chicago Board of Education.
“Those people at that appointed school board are not going to do right by us and our kids,” she said, adding that her two children boycotted the school district on Wednesday and did not attend class at Mollison.
Chanting “Mr. Mayor, where you at?” Taylor, Brown and roughly 50 participants in Wednesday’s march to City Hall took their message to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office on the 5th floor, demanding he “come out and talk to his constituents.”
Tom Alexander, deputy communications director for Emanuel’s office, said he would deliver the message to the mayor.
“Massive school budget cuts are a personal attack on our children and our entire city,” said Rousemary Vega, whose three children, ages seven, 11 and 15, participated in the CPS boycott because they all had their elementary school, Jean D. Lafayette Elementary, close at the end of last year.
“Fifty years ago they marched for justice and freedom, today we boycott to remind them, if we don’t get no justice, then they don’t get no freedom,” she said.
Here’s more from Vega and Wednesday’s protest:
CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett called the school system boycott “unacceptable."
“Adults need to set the example for our children and advocate that nothing matters more than their education," she said in a statement. "Removing children from the classroom for even one day is unacceptable. Our students belong in the classroom with their teachers getting the instruction they need to be on a path to a successful and bright future.”
The Chicago education activists are part of a nationwide coalition, Journey for Justice, which organized similar education boycotts in 25 cities across the country, including Detroit, Philadelphia, Oakland and Boston. The nationwide group alleges school closings disproportionately affect low-income communities of color.
In Chicago, roughly 80 percent of the students affected by last year's school closures are African American, while only about 42 percent of CPS' student body is black.
In her speech before the Chicago Board of Education, shortly before the members voted on the proposed budget, Wendy Katten, executive director of the education coalition Raise Your Hand, questioned the district’s figures for budget cuts.
“This budget cuts traditional public schools by $185 million while increasing charter spending by $80 million,” she said, pointing to a study by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “This is a terrible, terrible budget for children.”
Katten called on the Chicago Board of Education to urge Emanuel to declare a tax increment financing (TIF) district surplus, adding that “whether it’s $53 million, or $80 million, or $100 million, it’s money that our children need to learn and thrive.”
She also criticized CPS for requesting new charter school proposals, as district-wide budget cuts threaten to strip much-needed resources from public schools across the city.
“I know you’re going to approve this budget today,” she said. “Because your job is to approve what the mayor tells you to do."
Following the board's vote, which occured in a closed session after the public portion of the meeting was over, Byrd-Bennett issued the following statement:
“The final budget passed today reflects the difficult decisions that needed to be made to close a historic billion-dollar budget gap, while protecting the critical investments necessary to allow our students to thrive and succeed in the classroom. We have reduced central office, administrative and operations spending wherever possible to keep cuts as far away from the classroom as possible. We will continue to maximize the dollars and resources available to our District and look for ways to further reduce spending outside the classroom. However, we can't cut our way out of this crisis. We need meaningful pension reform that can generate significant savings and prevent devastating future cuts to our schools.”
Meanwhile, Meleny Ramos, an 11 year-old student from Pritzker School who didn't attend class on Wednesday, said she is sad because her friends were divided amongst several different institutions when her school, Lafayette Elementary, was closed.
“I am here to boycott for justice for education,” she said. “I want to fight for my education.”
Ramos said she participated in Lafayette’s orchestra, but Pritzker doesn’t offer the music program and therefore she doesn’t play her instrument anymore.
“Lafayette was a really good school,” she said. “I was there forever, and once they told us it was closing down, it just broke me down.”