Chicago school district, union want to call truce

But looming issues, like school closings, may prevent that

September 25, 2012

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The Chicago Board of Education and the Chicago Teachers Union want to put the teachers strike behind them, but with new issues looming, a truce may not last long.

School officials spent most of their uncharacteristically short monthly meeting talking about the tentative contract agreement between the board and the teachers union.

Michael Brunson, the union’s recording secretary, said now that the strike is over, both sides should call a “truce of peace.”

“We are still at a somewhat delicate point in this process,” Brunson said in his remarks that kicked off the short, seven-speaker public participation portion of the meeting. “This is not a time for saber rattling and, if you excuse me for mixing metaphors, this boat will go faster and farther if we both row together.”

Brunson pointed out a couple of actions the union does not see as being helpful to the relationship with the district. The first, TV ads sponsored by an outside education reform group featuring Mayor Rahm Emanuel touting the longer school day and other successes from contract negotiations. The second, an anti-teacher union op-ed piece published last week in the Chicago Tribune by venture capitalist and Emanuel ally, Bruce Rauner.

Board member Penny Pritzker said she appreciates and agrees with Brunson’s sentiment.

But Brunson also raised the issue of school closings with board members, saying teachers and communities are “very concerned about rumors and statements that a hundred schools will be closed” in the coming years.

“My understanding [is] that your portfolio office has composed a deck listing these schools, so I’m asking you as the recording secretary of the CTU, to release that information to me, not just me but the public so we can debate the merits of that proposal.”

Board president David Vitale said that is not true.

“There isn’t a plan, and when there is a plan, we will share it with everybody,” Vitale said.

Brunson was not alone. Prior to and during the board meeting, a group of community activists and parents again called for a moratorium on school closures.

 Standing outside the Board of Education, Rev. Krista Alston listed off  numbers of legislation that could halt school closings in Chicago—House Bill 4487 and Senate Bill 3239.

“We want our legislators to know,” Alston said. “We want Michael Madigan to call this bill when the veto session comes.”

Alston is part of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, which has been fighting school closings heavily in the past year. That’s partly because their neighborhood has seen almost 20 school closings or turnarounds in the last decade.  

School closings were also a flashpoint in the recent teachers strike, as the teachers union fought for increased job security for its members.

The district has not said it plans to close 100 schools, but in a grant application submitted to the Gates Foundation over the summer, the school district said it plans to open 100 schools in the next 5 years. Sixty of them would be charters, the application said. That plan closely resembles Mayor Richard Daley's Renaissance 2010 initiative, which opened 100 schools between 2005 and 2010.

Activists worry that as the district continues to open new schools, it will also close neighborhood schools in order to balance the budget.

Though Vitale denied any such plan, he did say that the district has a “capacity problem”—there are too many schools and not enough students to fill them.

CPS news releases also are updated to reflect the changing dynamics between the number of schools and enrollment. It now said the district serves 402,000 students in 681 schools, as opposed to last year when it said CPS served 405,000 students in 675 schools.

School officials are expected to make changes to the district’s $5.1 billion budget in the next month. They will hold public hearings and then present it to the Board at next month’s meeting.  

And helping them with those revisions will be a new Chief Financial Officer, appointed Wednesday. Peter W. Rogers will replace Dave Watkins, who just retired, officials said.