Public education was one of the reasons Mayor Rahm Emanuel faced a runoff election Tuesday.
Despite a rocky relationship with some teachers and parents in his first term, he won a second.
Emanuel now will face challenges at Chicago Public Schools that look a lot like the challenges of four years ago: declining enrollment, ballooning pension costs, and an expiring contract with the Chicago Teachers Union.
But then again, first-term Emanuel looks different than second-term Emanuel, so far.
“I understand the challenges we face will require me to approach them differently and work in a different fashion,” he said in his victory speech at a union hall in the West Loop.
CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey says although union-backed candidate Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia garnered 44 percent of the vote to the mayor’s 56 percent, the new “sweater-wearing Rahm” is enough of a victory.
“You saw the mayor put on a soft shirt and say he was going to do more listening, which is very different than what you saw in 2012,” Sharkey said, referring to the year CTU teachers went on strike for the first time in 25 years.
It’s unclear how far that rhetoric will go. Sharkey admitted while there’s still likely to be a lot of conflict. CTU will have to work with Emanuel.
“The union can’t go around saying this mayor is dead to us for the next four years,” Sharkey said. “We’re going to have to figure out how to actually solve some of the problems going on in the schools.”
The current teachers’ contract expires in June, but could be extended for a fourth year if the board offers the union a three percent raise.
“People would be willing to take less money in exchange for some basic protections about working conditions and some assurances that they’re not just going to keep closing and privatizing schools,” Sharkey said.
“We are still under a moratorium, so no immediate plans to do anything on that front,” said Jesse Ruiz, vice president of the Chicago Board of Education, referring to a five-year moratorium put into place after the Board closed 50 schools in 2013.
It’s a tough promise to keep in a city with a declining population and therefore, declining school enrollment.
“We’re hoping to change that (exodus) by some of the things we’re doing to make it attractive for Chicagoans to want to continue to live here and grow their families here,” Ruiz said.
Parent Wendy Katten says she hopes that to do so the district will focus on improving existing schools, rather than opening a bunch of new ones.
“We see 7,000 fewer students in CPS than three years ago and there’s a reason why,” Katten said. “People want strong neighborhood schools. I mean, we’ve got new RFPs for charters due today. We don’t need any more schools right now.”
But Andrew Broy, executive director of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, said it’s not an either-or.
“We can both expand high-quality charters, while we work on all the schools in the city to make them better,” Broy said. “I’ll borrow a phrase from President Obama--I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
In his victory speech, Emanuel made it sound like he will walk and chew gum at the same time — by continuing to open new schools while trying to improve existing ones.
“I hear you on the importance of neighborhood high schools and better choices,” he shouted.
The question is: Will he still be wearing that sweater?