About 100 members of the Chicago Students Union (CSU) and their allies marched in support of an elected school board and adequate neighborhood school funding during a downtown protest Monday afternoon.
Chanting "Whose schools? Our schools!" and "Rahm, you weasel! Give us back our easels!", the student activists marched from a plaza adjacent to the Chicago Temple, 77 W. Washington St., to the Chicago Public Schools' (CPS) downtown headquarters at 125 S. Clark St.
The CSU, which high school students formed a year ago, is active in 25 Chicago public schools. The union, comprised of more than 200 students, focuses its organizing efforts on issues involving school closures, budget cuts and teacher layoffs.
"We've taken over Board of Education meetings, had marches, had press conferences, but the Board of Education has not listened to us," said CSU organizer Ross Floyd, a junior at William Jones College Preparatory High School. "They continue to move forward with devastating cuts to our schools that hurt each and every student's education. The reason this happens is because the Board of Education is only accountable to one man — Rahm Emanuel. And that is not right."
"An appointed school board will not give us the education we deserve, and will not give us the supplies we need," Floyd continued. "In order to have a true education, the needs of the students must be heard. That can only happen through a democratically-elected board of education."
The Chicago Board of Education is the only non-elected school board in Illinois, and the state legislature must ultimately change the rules. Legislation that would provide for the election of Chicago school board members, instead of the current appointment system, failed to gain traction among state lawmakers last legislative session.
State Representative-elect Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago) stood in solidarity with the students at today's protest. Guzzardi, who will represent the state's 39th legislative district, said he will push for legislation that requires an elected Chicago school board when he gets to Springfield.
"People in the city of Chicago believe in this idea," Guzzardi said, pointing to the nearly ninety percent of voters in some Chicago precincts who voted in favor of a November 2012 advisory referendum for an elected school board in the city. "But just believing in it isn't enough. We need leaders who are willing to fight for this issue ... I intend to go down to Springfield and fight on this issue. But we need more organization and more leadership from the students of this city ... to fight for this issue on the streets."
Samantha Cousino, a senior at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School, said the CSU is prepping for "an active student voice in the upcoming November and February elections."
CSU plans to team up with the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Votes to get as many eligible juniors and seniors registered to vote as possible before the November election in order to "elect progressive representatives that will help our issues pass in Springfield," Cousino said.
CSU organizers could not specifically say how many high school students they intend to register. But Floyd said about 50 seniors at his school, Jones College Prep, are eligible for voter registration.
"So when there are over 100 high schools in Chicago, I think the possibility is really high," he said.
Here's more from Guzzardi, Whitney M. Young Magnet High School student Rosalina Torres and scenes from today's protest:
Emony Tate, a junior at Charles P. Steinmetz Academic Centre High School, said CPS is unfairly ramping up resources for charter schools — which are independently run, but receive public money and often raise private funds through foundations and philanthropists — while neighborhood schools see their budget cuts.
"Our schools are falling apart," she stressed. "Our textbooks need to be updated. Our computers need to be updated. That's our money, so give it back to us ... (Charters) are getting too much money. How do we not have money for schools, but they're always building a brand new charter school and (closing) down our Chicago public schools?"
Last month, the Chicago Board of Education unanimously approved the school district's controversial $5.8 billion spending plan for the 2015 fiscal year, which calls for cuts to the budgets of traditional neighborhood schools and increases funding for charters. The funding disparity is due mostly to projected enrollment declines at traditional CPS schools and increased enrollment at charters. CPS uses a per-pupil budgeting formula, which provides funds to schools based on how many students are enrolled.
Charles Allen Prosser Career Academy High School student Gavrieo Portillo said he is frustrated by the funding disparity among public schools in the city. His school, he said, does not have enough resources for printer paper or new overhead projectors and textbooks.
"My sophomore year, I spent a year learning from a textbook dated from 1993 ... from four years before I was born," he said. "I was learning from a math book from two decades ago."
The union has met twice with Chicago Board of Education member Jesse Ruiz to discuss their concerns. Floyd said plans are in the works to distribute a survey to all high school students "to ask about what problems they're facing in their schools, so we can start to work efficiently around getting budgeting problems fixed."
He added, "Jesse Ruiz is in favor of that survey."
Wendy Katten with the Raise Your Hand education coalition marched with the students today.
"The policies that are in place right now have been incredibly damaging to our district as a whole," she told Progress Illinois. "We've seen neighborhood schools really get decimated over the last three years. We've seen in the latest Tribune poll most of the city is really dissatisfied with the policies of this administration. It's really critical to keep organizing and speaking about it and pushing for change, because our school system is in bad shape."