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Teachers Fearful, Angry Over Budget Cuts

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Teachers Fearful, Angry Over Budget Cuts

Teachers across Illinois are wearing pink today. That’s to show solidarity for the thousands in their ranks who’ve just been handed--or are about to get--pink slips. As school districts wrangle with grim budget scenarios, teachers are reacting with fear and anger.

At King College Prep High School this week on Chicago ‘s south side, principal Jeff Wright met with teachers to give them the bad news from district CEO Ron Huberman.

WRIGHT: This is the cheat sheet of everything from Mr. Huberman’s presentation on Monday to the principals, so we’re going to kind of walk through this together.

With teachers seated in their students’ chairs, the lights dimmed for the PowerPoint presentation, Wright showed graphs of growing CPS deficits and ballooning pension payments.

WRIGHT: We still need to find a way to close a 700 million dollar gap—according to their numbers—and here is the plan.

At the top of the list: class sizes of 37. That’s up from 28 in the high schools—and it would mean an extra 45 kids a day for most teachers in this room.

At King, some classes are already bursting.

PROGRAMMER: PE right now is 40, so does that go up to 49? Art is 31, so does that go up? Music is 34.

There’d be additional cuts that could fundamentally change this school, from afterschool programs to sports to assistant principals. Some 3,800 jobs would be cut across the district, most of them teachers.

Chemistry teacher Karen Lewis listens to Wright, but she thinks the message Huberman has sent is a scare tactic to get teachers to give on salaries and raises.

LEWIS: Before we buy into the doomsday, we need to understand where it came from and who created it....

Lewis is running for president of the Chicago Teachers Union, and the upcoming union election complicates Chicago ‘s budget mess. Union leaders could appear weak if they agree to concessions on wages, benefits and pension payments. That’s what Huberman says is needed to avoid draconian cuts.

Teacher Jocelyn Alexander Shaw says she doesn’t pay much attention to union politics. But she is concerned about how many kids will end up in her English classes.

ALEXANDER SHAW: It’s really hard to teach a class of 30. I wouldn’t want to see that class increase to 37. Ask a student how it is to be in a class of 37 students—sometimes they drown in classes where there’s 17.

And while teacher cuts are still a threat in Chicago, they’re real in other districts across the state and nation. Kids in Hawaii are only going to school four days a week. Kansas City just closed half its schools. With Illinois $13 billion in debt and Governor Pat Quinn proposing a $1.3 billion dollar cut to education… pink slips here are flying.

HARRIS: It’s frightening, it’s scary, it’s…

Melissa Harris teaches English at Abbott Middle School in northwest suburban Elgin . She’s one of 1,037 district employees to learn this week she won’t have a job next fall; 732 of those laid off were teachers. Harris blames politicians for her fate.

HARRIS: It doesn’t make any sense to me. I feel like we’re being targeted. However, we want kids to go to school and finish and go to college. But we are cutting off the means for them to be able to do that. Let’s face it, we are the ones who help make that happen.

Harris knows she and other teachers could be reinstated if state legislators come up with money. But at least one laid-off Elgin teacher used his prep period this week to job hunt.

Gail Purkey is a spokeswoman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

PURKEY: The scope and the depth of the cuts we’re getting reports about are like nothing we’ve seen in decades.

Purkey’s union is supporting the governor’s call for a tax hike. She’s seeing teachers in places like Addison agree to re-negotiate salaries and benefits in an effort to save jobs.

PURKEY: It’s really troubling to see districts of all shapes and sizes faced with this because the state of Illinois can’t get the job done when it comes to school funding.

Purkey points out teachers make up the bulk of any school district budget. And as districts wrestle with deficits, she fears more pain for teachers.

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