With threat of teacher strike looming, CPS problems pile up at board meeting

By Emily Olsen and Meredith Francis

[Update: The Chicago Teachers Union announced Wednesday evening that the teachers will strike starting Oct. 11 if it does not reach a contract deal with the school district.]

As dozens of teachers and parents crowded into a packed room at the Chicago Board of Education’s Wednesday meeting to voice their complaints, a teacher strike threatened to bring school to a halt altogether.

The Chicago Teachers Union will announce Wednesday evening whether it will strike, a move overwhelmingly supported by rank-and-file teachers last week. Teachers must give the city 10 days’ notice before walking out of the classroom.

“This action is disappointing because negotiations are ongoing,” district CEO Forrest Claypool said. “I truly believe a strike can be averted.”

CTU President Karen Lewis made a rare appearance, pushing for tax increment financing for schools, including solving the teacher contract dispute. She did not comment on tonight’s strike vote.

Lewis and Frank Clark, board president, cut through the tension with gallows humor: “I know you all would like to replace us with computers, but it’s not going to work like that,” Lewis said. “We’re not ready for that. That’ll be a little further into the 21st century.”

Clark responded: “You’re irreplaceable.”

Following the rare moment of levity, two topics dominated the public commentary from more than 60 parents, teachers and community leaders: special education funding and school consolidations.

Many parents and teachers lamented a change that lumps special education money with the general education budget. In previous years, schools received a separate allotment for diverse learners, who sometimes require special aids, separate classrooms and other specific resources. Critics say the change makes special education funding less transparent.

“Those kids that are most vulnerable and those kids that learn at a different pace are being left behind,” said Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), who is also a CTU member.

Christine Palmieri, a parent at Blaine Elementary School in Lakeview, said the lack of special education teachers and resources has led her to purchase a GPS watch so she can keep track of her son with autism. She said he has the tendency to flee school.

“In CPS, are we waiting for children to fail or get hurt before placing special education support?” Palmieri said.

A large group of parents also decried Ald. Matt O’Shea’s (19th) proposal to consolidate and relocate four elementary schools in his South Side district. According to an e-mail the alderman sent to the district, the restructuring would consolidate Kellogg and Sutherland Elementary Schools, move Keller Regional Gifted Center to the old Kellogg building, then create a second campus for Mount Greenwood Elementary School.

O’Shea wrote Kellogg and Sutherland student populations were shrinking, while Mount Greenwood was becoming overcrowded.

Monica Gross said the proposal would be “traumatic” for her autistic son. She said he is starting to make friends and connections at Kellogg, and she’s concerned his accomplishments would fade at a new school.

“Now all of a sudden those friends he’s just getting to know, these relationships that are just starting to build are going to be cut off,” Gross said.

Parents from Kellogg Elementary School speak out against school consolidation in their neighborhood at Wednesday’s Chicago Board of Education meeting. (Meredith Francis/MEDILL)