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School of Hard Knocks for Chicago Teachers

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It's a hard time to be a teacher in Chicago. Or to have been one.

Ten days ago, to the surprise of its employees, the Chicago school district laid off more than 1,000 teachers and about 1,100 support staff members. Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis said that number was twice what she'd expected. In June, the district had laid off 850 employees as well.

The district has said it is facing a $1 billion deficit due for the most part to increasing pension obligations.

Coincidentally, I spent a few days in Chicago last week at a teacher professional-development seminar on an unrelated assignment. While there, I met several CPS teachers who, first and foremost, acknowledged their luck at having kept their jobs. "I'm safe, for now," a French teacher told me. Neither he nor the other teachers I spoke with harbored any illusions that the situation is stable.

Lisa Ehrlich-Menard, a teacher at the city's John Hancock College Prep High School, said that she is "tired and angry" about the situation. "Teachers are bracing for the worst, searching for grants, and trying to figure out how to start the year. Somehow, we have become the people to blame in the numbers game."

Ehrlich-Menard expressed indignation—shared by many other union members—that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has agreed to spend millions in tax increment financing (TIF) money (tax dollars reserved for community improvement and redevelopment) to move a Vienna Beef factory and to build a new DePaul basketball arena, while nearly 3,000 school employees are now without jobs. "People have been asking for [TIF money] to go to schools for years," she said. "Spending by the board doesn't make sense in general."

The Chicago Reader, an alternative weekly newspaper, recently ran a piece on the apparent mixed messages inherent in the city's Vienna Beef subsidy. ("As schools starve, Mayor Emanuel finds $5 million for hot dogs," says the story's lead-in.) The city claims the move will ease traffic and keep the factory in Chicago, according to Chicago Real Estate Daily.

Meanwhile, about 100 protesters showed up at the CPS headquarters last Wednesday morning, the Chicago Tribune reports. Many vocalized concerns about where the TIF money was going. According to The Chicago Sun-Times, Emanuel rejected the idea that TIF funds could help with rising pension costs, saying that same day, "You cannot either tax your way or TIF your way out of this problem. It's a structural problem that needs to be addressed in a structural way, which is why we need pension reform." (For more on how pension liabilities affect school district budgeting, see Stephen Sawchuk's story about St. Louis.)

In gestures large and small, Chicagoans are finding ways to show sympathy for their city's teachers. Kenzo Shibata, a Chicago teacher, wrote in the Huffington Post about teachers wearing red CTU t-shirts who were offered high-fives and free concert tickets on the street. Two CPS teachers who had been signed up for the five-day PD institute I attended were among those hit by the July 19 round of layoffs. Brian Elza of Facets Multi-media, the nonprofit arts organization hosting the PD, not only refunded their tuition but also offered to let them audit the classes for free.

Hopefully, city residents will continue to find more of this generosity come fall, when unemployed teachers really begin to feel the burn.

Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, responds to a question about layoffs by the Chicago Public Schools of union employees during a news conference on July 19 in Chicago. —Charles Rex Arbogast/AP


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