Ellen Hao

On Friday, February 3, Paula Wyatt should have been at her school on Chicago’s Northwest Side, where she works as a librarian for 1100 students. This particular Friday was scheduled as a coveted (and contractually required) staff professional development day. Wyatt should have attended a discussion of LGBT issues in schools with staff from Lurie Children’s Hospital and a presentation by a bilingual specialist.  She should have attended a curriculum-planning meeting, a grant-writing seminar in order to apply for library refurbishment funds, and a meeting with Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) mentors regarding the implementation of new Next Generation Science Standards. Her colleagues should have been engaging in other training and development opportunities or using the day for grading and meetings. But instead, on February 3, Wyatt’s school remained closed, like all the 516 other schools operated by Chicago Public Schools (CPS). This district-wide closure left over 31,000 CPS employees without pay and over 320,000 students unable to reap the benefits of those teacher-training programs.

February 3 was the first of four furlough days, which are mandatory unpaid leaves usually called for by companies due to financial reasons, announced by CPS in mid-January; the other three will also fall on what were supposed to be paid teacher training days. Now, CPS teachers and educators will have lost a combined seven days’ worth of professional development and training—with a total of nine furlough days—between fiscal years 2016 and 2017. The district argued that the announcement came as a cost-cutting response to Governor Bruce Rauner’s December veto of a bill that would have provided CPS $215 million in funding to help balance the district’s budget. While Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS CEO Forrest Claypool have pointed fingers at the governor, many CPS employees see Claypool and Emanuel’s actions as a troubling capitulation to Rauner’s cut-first mentality, and as demonstrative of City Hall’s unwillingness to pursue a progressive agenda on behalf of Chicago educators and their students.

In a statement released on January 15, the CTU placed blame for the cuts firmly on the shoulders of Emanuel and Claypool. “Today’s decision by the district to mandate four system-wide furlough days is just the latest consequence of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and handpicked CPS CEO Forrest Claypool’s unwillingness to pursue progressive revenue for our schools,” the statement said. On a broader scale, the recent cuts to teacher training days are only one part of a series of policy decisions and cuts over the past year that hurt Chicago Public Schools.

Over a hundred CTU members spent their first furlough day on the fifth floor of City Hall, outside Emanuel’s office, in protest against the decision. Amidst calls to “Get rid of Claypool” and “Furlough Rahm,” teachers and other CPS employees voiced concerns over what they perceive to be an attitude of negligence and disregard for the concerns of school employees and middle-class Chicagoans in general.

Jose Jimenez, a school clerk who has worked at Wells Community Academy High School on the Near Northwest Side for twenty-nine years and serves as a CTU Paraprofessional and School-Related Personnel representative, described how school clerks have become a prime target of budget cuts despite the crucial role they play in day-to-day school operation.

“We do whatever has to be done to support the students, the school, the teachers, the staff,” said Jimenez. “We make sure that that payroll is done correctly. We make sure that that parent knows who the teacher is. We make sure that that bus is on time. We order that bus. We do all the financials for that school. And we do all the transportation. Now the mayor decides to cut, to give us furlough days. This is unfair.”

According to event organizers, eighty percent of school clerks in CPS are black and Latina women. This statistic was not lost on Deborah Lane, a member of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308, which represents Chicago Transit Authority workers. Lane, who also spoke at the demonstration, noted that eighty-five percent of CTA workers are people of color and said that CTA employees are victims of the same “backroom deals” being brokered by City Hall at the expense of CPS employees, of whom nearly eighty percent are female. Lane went on to describe the gender-specific struggles of CTA employees. She said employees are forced to work thirteen-hour days for only eight hours of pay, that female employees work throughout their pregnancies due to CTA’s lack of a maternity leave policy, and that female employees are sexually assaulted on the job.

Lane then shouted triumphantly, “We move Chicago!” The assembled demonstrators met her pronouncement with chants of “Shut it down!”

This expressed solidarity between CTA and CPS workers has a basis in the cast of City Hall actors behind the furlough day decision. In May of 2015, in one of his last acts as President of the CTA, Claypool slashed $21 million in subsidies for reduced transit fares from the CTA budget. He cited Rauner’s threat of more severe cuts as the basis for his decision. That July, Claypool was appointed by Emanuel to serve as CEO of CPS and, according to his critics, would continue to capitulate to Rauner’s threats in his new position, resorting to budget cuts and other strategies that severely impact CPS teachers and students.

According to Roxana Gonzalez, a teacher at Prieto Math and Science Academy on the Northwest Side, the addition of more furlough days to the CPS calendar is representative of the indifference shown by Emanuel, Claypool, and the rest of City Hall for teachers and students in Chicago.

“Any CPS teacher can tell you the challenges that we face in our classrooms,” she said. “These cuts are hurting our classrooms. If you do not prioritize teachers, you cannot say that you prioritize students.” Gonzalez, who teaches in a school with a student body that is nearly ninety-five percent Hispanic, also denounced the lack of a response from City Hall to a recent CTU press release that demanded the implementation of policies that would create “safe sanctuary schools for students.”

These demands, released on January 24, included a call to “Defend and protect all CPS students.” This would involve creating a protocol to protect students from immigration raids, starting to train teachers and counselors on trauma-related issues, and increasing resources devoted to students experiencing trauma.

“We need social workers, counselors, and nurses in our schools every day,” says Gonzalez. “Not part time, because students don’t need help on a part-time basis. It is insulting that Rahm says that our city is a sanctuary city when he’s not taking steps to protect our students.”

To Wyatt and her colleagues, the four new furlough days represent a serious attack on teacher training and preparedness, which in turn affects the quality of the education students receive.

“It does have this trickle-down effect, since teachers are notorious for using every single second of the day,” said Wyatt of the furlough days. “Taking four days of time is a lot for us, because we jam pack it.”

Wyatt said that budget cuts, furlough days, and the dearth of training and development opportunities that they represent has left teachers frustrated as they seek to provide the best education possible to their students despite the obstacles put in place by the offices of the mayor and the governor. Describing the exasperation that she feels when she sees other, wealthier school districts, flush with cash and opportunities for further training and professional development for their teachers, she said, “It’s frustrating because you know that other school districts are getting more, and you want your kids to have the same opportunities and resources that everybody else has. It feels unfair, at the front line.”

At a time when schools in Chicago are already reeling from years of budget cuts and teachers are already burdened by excessive workloads caused by these cuts, the addition of new furlough days only further threatens the fragile state of public education in Chicago.

Recent events have demonstrated that the CTU and other advocates and allies of public education will continue to push back against Emanuel and Claypool’s collaboration with Rauner’s austerity agenda. We can expect that CTU members will again fill City Hall on the three coming furlough days (scheduled for April 7, June 21, and June 22), that the CTU will continue to call for Claypool’s resignation, and that CTU leadership will continue to advocate for progressive taxation policies to help balance the CPS budget. In the union’s statement on the announcement of the furlough day mandate, CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said that Emanuel “and his CPS CEO should work in an honest way with elected officials in Springfield to move a millionaires tax, move the closure of corporate tax loopholes at the state, and move a shift toward adequate and equitable funding for schools in Illinois.”

We can also expect, however, that cuts will continue. On February 6, CPS announced that they would cut another $46 million from the district budget. (On February 24, CPS walked back those cuts by $15 million, after criticism that the cuts disproportionately affected majority-Latinx and African-American schools.) And on Monday, February 27, CPS announced it might end school almost three weeks early on June 1 if it does not receive more state funding soon. Both of these announcements were made with Claypool’s now-predictable criticisms of Rauner (Claypool even compared him to President Trump). But while Emanuel and Claypool accuse Rauner of reneging on his promises to protect CPS and Rauner pins blame on statehouse Democrats for their lack of commitment to pension reform, the maneuverings in both Springfield and Chicago City Hall are heavily impacting teachers and students in Chicago.

As teachers see their opportunities for career development and training disappear, Wyatt says that she and her colleagues feel a sense of helplessness and frustration. “The frustration is all around, because as a teacher, my responsibility is looking into the eyes of my children every day, and to advocate for them. My colleagues are the same way,” she said.

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