Strike Day 1: Emanuel weighs in, CTU pickets

September 10, 2012

A teacher pickets CPS headquarters during a massive rally held downtown on Monday.
A teacher pickets CPS headquarters during a massive rally held downtown on Monday.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel again Monday called the teachers’ strike one of “choice” and said that negotiators just need to figure out two issues. Though he said the issues were so resolvable that he thought the union should have postponed the walk out, he went on to insist that his position was correct and didn’t seem open to budging.

The CTU and CPS have major ideological differences of opinion on the two remaining issues—teacher evaluation and treatment of laid off and displaced teachers—perhaps making compromising more difficult than if the disagreement was over pay. Union leaders have identified a long list of unmet demands, but agree with Emanuel that these issues are sticking points.

Emanuel said he told his negotiators to “finish up” contract negotiations, but would talk to his legal team about filing an injunction should the strike drag on.

Emanuel, making remarks at Maranatha Church on the Southwest Side, said negotiators were back at the table but had no updates. “We have offered an honest compromise that does right by our kids and is fair to taxpayers,” he said.

Meanwhile, CTU ratcheted up the pressure on Monday. After getting teachers out to picket from early in the morning til 10:30 a.m., they held a massive rally outside of CPS headquarters downtown.

Many teachers on the picket lines referred questions to their leaders. However, at Till Elementary, a group stopped walking to describe the bad conditions they teach in.

“A few of our classrooms had to stop taking a standardized test because mice were running around,” one said. A kindergarten teacher added she had 38 children in her class and no aide. And, so far this school year, books and other supplies haven’t arrived.

“This is the type of environment we teach in,” one said.

At Bowen High School, union delegate Denise Forbes said the school has more than 500 students and only one computer and music teacher.  “The most important issue is resources,” she said.

Teachers said the lack of resources for children both inside schools and outside schools is why they are nervous about having too much of their evaluations tied to test scores. CTU President Karen Lewis has said too many factors outside of schools have an impact on test scores, she said.

But on Monday, Emanuel made it clear he was committed to ensuring that student performance, including student growth on test scores, were part of the evaluation. Emanuel pointed out that as chief of staff at the White House, he helped orchestrate the passage of Race to the Top. Race to the Top is a federal grant program in which states competed for billions and made themselves more attractive by passing laws that included revamped teacher evaluations tied to test scores.

He said that teachers helped design the new teacher evaluation system and part of the compromise was allowing them to be a part of making future adjustments.

He also discounted union claims that the evaluation system could lead to the firing of 6,000 teachers over two years. “I am optimistic that more teachers will pass,” Emanuel said. “I am more confident in them than their union.”

Emanuel also reiterated his perspective on the treatment of laid off and displaced teachers.

This is an important issue to the union as it is speculated that the district will close down dozens of under-utilized schools in coming years. The union would like these displaced teachers to have preference for open positions.

But Emanuel doesn’t talk at all about displaced and laid off teachers. Instead, he emphasizes that principals should have full discretion to hire who they want. As a prop at his news conference, he held up a list of 50 high-achieving schools in Chicago.

“If we are to hold the principals accountable, then we need to give them the ability to pick the best qualified people for the job,” he said.

Watching movies, contingency plans

Maranatha Church on the Southwest Side, where Emanuel spoke, is one of the sites running a Safe Haven program for children during the strike. CPS activated its strike contingency plan on Monday morning, opening up 144 schools to provide half-day activities and paying churches to run programs.

CPS officials said they did not know how many students showed up at the contingency sites. Opening schools and paying churches to hold programs is costing CPS $25 million.

The union had blasted the contingency plan as a waste of money and some parents who stopped by seemed unimpressed. Danielle Coleman, whose child attends kindergarten at Gale, and Aurora Marquez, who has three children at Stone Elementary, walked inside Gale Elementary, observed the activities and left with their children.

“I thought about it. We got them up and dressed,” Coleman said. “[But] I don’t like how the volunteers talk to the students.”

At Clemente High School, some teachers stood in the median on Western Avenue holding signs. As cars went by, many of them honked. 

A community watch volunteer said around dismissal time that of the up to 4,000 students eligible to attend Children First at Clemente, just five had shown up. At Amundsen High, just 50 of 1,500 students showed up.

Some students joined the picket lines with their teachers. At Bowen High School, four friends showed up and put signs around their necks. “We love our teachers,” said Jasmine Bennett, a junior.

The group said that the school has gotten a new burst of energy with a principal who started last year.  “Value-added learning,” said Aaliyah Travis, also a junior. “It just means that we take our learning seriously and enjoy it.”

The four friends said that at first they were happy about the strike, but now they are worried about it cutting into their summer and making it difficult for them to get summer jobs.

Younger students, however, were not thinking too much about the future and just enjoying the nice early fall day. “Yay,” said four boys, raising their arms in victory, describing how they felt when they heard about the strike. They spent the morning sitting on their grandmother’s porch across the street from Till Elementary.  When they saw their teachers, they called out to them.

“Hi, honey,” one responded.

Their grandma, Antoinette Bean, said she told the teachers they could come to her house to use the bathroom and that she would send the boys to the store, should they need food. “I just think it is a shame,” she said. “Teachers should get what they want.”

Jose Maya, a 1st-grade student at Gale Elementary in Rogers Park, and his older brother Gustavo Gutierrez, who attends 8th grade, said they had a great day planned to take the place of school.

“First we are going to watch a movie. Then we are going to eat,” said Gutierrez.  His younger brother added that the two planned to play a “really scary” zombie video game. 

At an alternative site in Hyde Park set up by supporters of the union, about 35 students played soccer, learned crocheting and made sailboats. Parent Tigist Bekele helped her son, Sam, who attends nearby Ray, make a boat and said she supports the teachers. "I am not working right now, so I showed up to help out," Bekele said.

Contributing: Rebecca Harris, Nicole Koetting