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Teaching and Living in Chicago is Great ... in My Dreams

Things are getting chaotic in Chicago. As much as I love the city of my birth, I cannot recommend anyone relocating here—especially if you are a teacher.

Eight hundred and fifty teachers and staff who work for the school district got pink slips last Friday—just a week before they started their summer breaks. Fifty neighborhood schools in the city are set to close. And just when I thought the central office could not get any thinner, the Chicago Public Schools announced another 100 layoffs.

Hundreds more teacher layoffs may be imminent. Principals received their budgets from the district earlier this month and the funds were reportedly slashed by 10 to 25 percent per school. The only way to fill such large gaps would be to cut multiple staff positions.*

The district has the difficult task of showing the state how it will meet next school year's $1 billion budget deficit by July 1. So it must lay people off, though some may get hired back in the fall. That's how deficits grow.

One of my best friend's sister-in-laws was one who was let go. She had survived numerous rounds of layoffs before and was doing two people's jobs, working nights and weekends. But fate finally caught up with her; she was let go but the guy next to her who did far less got to stay.

It's all politics.

CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union knew that massive layoffs were coming. The guidelines for re-hiring dismissed tenured teachers were the subject of contentious negotiations during the teachers strike in September. Still the timing of the announcement comes as a shock because the district has yet to inform the public on many unanswered questions, including how many students have actually registered for school next year.

CPS has many balls in the air regarding how to pull off the largest school closings in U.S. history. There are three lawsuits aiming to stop the closures, the first of which will get heard in court on July 16 and involves the rights of special education students. There is a significant special needs population that is in limbo because their new schools allegedly do not have sufficient special education staff or programming.

I applaud the district for making a bold statement that poor black and brown students deserve to have a quality, 21st century education. But I deplore the way they went about achieving this. The implementation of closings has yet to be seen. From all accounts from those I know on the inside, central office is in utter chaos.

I have also heard several laid-off educators and disgruntled parents talking about leaving Illinois. Moving to a state that doesn't have the worse public pension crisis in America, at $100 billion in liabilities. A state that doesn't have a Democratic governor and a Democratic supermajority in the House and Senate, but still can't get important legislation like a pension reform bill passed. A state where the mayor of its urban center can't arbitrarily close down the only school in a community against the residents' will.

I love Chicago. It's full of potential. But the politics here are sickening. Taxes, fees and fines keep going up. Did you know that a parking meter in downtown Chicago is much more expensive than one in New York City's Times Square? (I know because I've parked in both locations.) My water bill has more than doubled, and now the city is considering not just raising property taxes again to the five percent cap—but raising the percentage of the cap!

Then there's the violence. Last weekend in Chicago: 41 shootings and 7 deaths. It's not even summer yet. My students were discussing this yesterday and one kid said, "It's like our whole 8th grade class got shot and 8 of us are dead."

Forgive me for my rant. I am fed up with my city. But I've always been a dreamer. Optimism keeps me balanced in the face of crisis.

I dream of a Chicago where the school at which I choose to teach or send my children isn't viewed as a political statement. I dream of a city where rich and poor, black and white live together in harmony. A place where our elected leaders are public servants, not just politicians.

I can't be fined for dreaming, even in Chicago.


*Paragraph added 6/20/13

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