Reporting Regine Schlesinger
CHICAGO (CBS) – A month before the new school year starts, protestors from the Chicago Teacher’s Union were expressing outrage over budget cuts at the Chicago Public Schools, with a protest march through the Loop.
WBBM Newsradio’s Regine Schlesinger reports, nearly a year after a bitter teachers’ strike, there is still a great deal of unrest between the union and the district, especially after the Board of Education approved closing 49 elementary schools.
The union is furious over the closings, which have prompted layoffs for 500 teachers and 300 staffers at schools set to close. That anger was exacerbated when CPS laid off another 2,000 workers last week, saying the cuts were necessary due to state lawmakers’ failure to address pension reform.
For the upcoming school year, the district’s pension costs have tripled to $600 million, and it has said those costs forced it to make significant cuts to save money.
“We’re seeing the elimination of art, music, world language programs across the district; physical education being eliminated; ballooning class sizes are a very high likelihood in the fall,” CTU staff coordinator Jackson Potter said at a protest march in the Loop on Wednesday. Demonstrators gathered at CPS Headquarters, 125 S. Clark St., before marching north past City Hall, to the Thompson Center, at 100 W. Randolph St.
Potter said teaching is becoming impossible due to continued spending cuts at the same time the district has implemented a longer school day.
“You don’t have time to even plan a lesson; and you have 50 students in a classroom; and you don’t have art, or music, and physical education,” he said. “We’re claiming a better day and recess, and kids don’t even have time to do P.E.”
Potter slammed the district for making cuts the union claims will devastate schools, at the same time the city is spending money on frivolous projects – including a new event center at McCormick Place that will be used as a basketball arena for DePaul University.
“They’re giving $100 million to DePaul, a private university who has a team nobody wants to see – and had a rent-free offer from the United Center – and that’s money that would go to our schools, our libraries, our parks,” Potter said.
The city will spend $55 million in tax increment financing district funds to purchase land for the arena, and the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority – which runs McCormick Place – would come up with $70 million in bonds backed by hotel taxes to pay for half of the construction costs of the stadium. DePaul would fund the other half of construction.
The protesters called on Gov. Pat Quinn to oppose the use of any state tax dollars to help build a DePaul arena.
Despite the continued rancor between the union and the district, Potter said there’s no talk of another strike, since state law prohibits Chicago teachers from striking if they have a contract.
However, Potter said the union has heard talk of a possible boycott by parents, because of the cuts made by the district.
“Parents are talking about a boycott, because of the outrage that schools will be impossible to manage, and run programs in, if you make these kinds of devastating cuts,” Potter said.
Demonstrators tried to make their point at the board meeting, but they ended up out on the street.
About 20 students and parents were kicked out of the school board meeting as they chanted and declared that students were getting a bad deal.
One of the parents kicked out was Rousemary Vega of Humboldt Park.
“I had an outburst and I had to tell Barbara Byrd-Bennett (Schools CEO) that she is George Zimmerman without a gun.”
She says she was escorted outside and told to leave.
In a statement, CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said the cuts were prompted by an estimated $1 billion budget shortfall driven by skyrocketing pension costs.
“The lack of pension reform in Springfield has brought this crisis into each of our schools, which is why we need meaningful pension reform to protect classroom investments in student learning and maintain the steady progress being made by our students,” she said.
Carroll also said the district has taken steps to minimize the impact of spending cuts on the classroom, by reducing administrative, operations, and central office spending by more than $712 million since 2011.
“But it is not enough to prevent principals from making very difficult decisions that have led to these unavoidable layoffs,” Carroll said. “Instead of advocating for meaningful pension reform to keep the pension system sustainable for current and future employees, CTU has instead proposed taking on more debt and paying for it with massive tax increases on Chicagoans. Only pension reform will reduce the structural deficit facing CPS, and ensure that we can avoid devastating cuts to our schools next year, which is not an option that our students and families can afford.”