The members of the Chicago Board of Education on Wednesday voted unanimously to take the highly unusual step of rejecting a hearing officer’s recommendation to fire two outspoken teachers. The teachers had accused the mayor, who appoints the board members, of orchestrating their termination.
The Washington High School teachers were instead issued a warning. Teachers Lauren Bianchi and Chuck Stark fought against relocating General Iron’s metal shredding facility to the Southeast Side over the last few years.
Some of the charges against the teachers related to encouraging student involvement in the protests.
The 6-to-0 vote was especially surprising because three members of the board are new. One of them, former Ald. Michael Scott Jr., is seen as a staunch ally of Mayor Lori Lightfoot. He replaced activist Dwayne Truss, who was pushed off the board this month after not supporting a Lightfoot proposal for a new high school on the Near South Side.
Board President Miguel del Valle also almost accepts school district recommendations. At the close of the board meeting, he said the board would not want to do anything that would have a chilling effect on a culturally responsive curriculum. The teachers facing termination argued that learning about the General Iron facility relocation to their community was important for their students.
No one produced direct evidence that Lightfoot was behind the disciplinary action, but the teachers said their principal didn’t initiate it, which is typically where disciplinary procedures start. Bianchi and Stark are currently probationary teachers, but will be tenured once the school year starts in August.
Chicago Teacher Union President Stacy Davis Gates offered gratitude to the board of education, while still criticizing them for not breaking ranks more often.
“I would be remiss if I did not say thank you to the Board of Education for acting as independent arbitrators of justice,” she said in a Wednesday evening press conference. “They understood that this moment required them to make a consideration that went beyond a rubber stamp.”
After the vote, Bianchi and Stark also thanked the board.
“I am breathing a deep sigh of relief that the Board of Education has decided to stand for justice and to defend and uplift the need for teachers to teach culturally responsive, culturally relevant curriculum that engages our students in important issues in their communities,” Bianchi said.
They added that they will continue to fight for environmental justice on the Southeast Side as well for new green schools in the neighborhood. They spoke, along with other teachers, staff and parents, at the board meeting on Wednesday about the deteriorating and broken down condition of Washington High School and other area schools..
Lightfoot’s office issued a statement, saying that CPS is faced with a “fundamental responsibility to safeguard the children whose families entrust CPS with their precious children.” She said the board considered allegations of serious rules violations. However, now that the board voted, she said “the matter is closed.”
In a statement, the school district said it hoped the warning “will not only address the behavior of these teachers but ensure promoting civic engagement among school communities is done appropriately and with due regard for student safety.” CPS said an investigation found that the teachers showed poor judgment and disregarded CPS’ safety policy.
The charges included directing students to travel to a protest 23 miles away with “unknown” chaperones. Another one was disregarding the protocols for volunteers by allowing students to participate in unsanctioned activities. The teachers said several of the charges were simply untrue.
In addition to the warning, the two teachers are required to attend a training on board safety policies as well as agree to comply with policies on student travel and on the use of volunteers.
The Chicago Teachers Union came out in force to support the teachers. Vice President Jackson Potter said that the history teacher and science teacher were doing exactly what they were expected to do. Potter said teachers are encouraged to get students involved in civic education.