Leaked memo tells principals to keep eye on school closings protesters

March 26, 2013

WBEZ/File
File: Students and parents from Lafayette School march down Division Street to Alderman Robert Maldonado's Office in Humboldt Park on March 21.

The Chicago Teachers Union is planning a rally downtown Wednesday to protest school closings.

It could be one of the biggest protests against the plan to close 54 of the city’s public schools, but it’s unlikely to be the last.

Union officials are encouraging people to hold nonviolent protests at schools throughout the city. They’ve conducted two trainings on “civil disobedience.”

Now, Chicago Public Schools officials are telling principals what to do if there is a walk-out, a sit-in or and an “Occupy” action at their school.

A memo sent last week to principals on the closure list, and leaked by the CTU yesterday afternoon, tells principals to report the names of any teachers and students involved in protests and to document the information if any media outlets show up. It instructs them to “report all information regarding possible protestors, locations, dates and times.”

A principal at one of the schools targeted for closure, who asked not to be named, said the memo came along with some other paperwork about the school being on the list of closures last week.

“Why are they asking principals to work as agents of this administration when they are the ones who have created a climate of chaos?” CTU president Karen Lewis said in a written statement Tuesday. “We intend to use whatever nonviolence protest actions we have in this fight for education justice.”

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll also issued a statement regarding the memo to principals.

“It's our obligation to put the safety and learning of our children before anything else,” Carroll said. “This is why we're providing guidance to principals to help them manage any acts of civil disobedience at their schools: so they can ensure that their children are in a safe environment with little disruption to their learning, and at the same time allow individuals the right to protest and express their views.”

The union has demanded CPS not close any schools.

But district officials argue there are too many schools and not enough money, forcing them to spread resources too thin.  Last week, CPS’s Chief Transformation Officer Todd Babbitz said, “We are spending way more on buildings that we believe are unnecessary in our footprint."

District officials said they estimate closing the 54 schools will bring a total annual savings of $43 million. That's in a district with an annual operating budget of about $5 billion. They also estimate the district will save $560 million in "avoided" capital costs over the next decade.

CPS has promised significant investments in the schools receiving students as a result of the closures—everything from iPads to learning gardens—with a one-year price tag of $233 million.

If the Board of Education approves the closure list, it will be the most any district in the country has closed in a single year.

Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.