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BOARDWATCH II: School Closing Train Wreck Is Direction Taken by Board of Education November Meeting

The November 14, 2012, Chicago Board of Education meeting seemed like a train running off its tracks at very high speed. It was the second meeting of the newly appointed Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd Bennett. Byrd Bennett had replaced Jean Claude Brizard at some point during the September CTU strike. Brizard had replaced Ron Huberman (with Terry Mazany in the "interim" between Huberman and Brizard). In three years, the CPS has had four chief executives, at least three education chiefs, and four or five financial chiefs.

The Board members, all of, more charter schools to open, and nobody was going to tell them otherwise!

Barbara Byrd Bennett, the latest CEO of Chicago Public Schools, spoke at the mic very passionately about school closing and the need for underutilized schools to be closed to save money. She explained that she had just created a nine-member "commission" that will need to repair and rebuild trust in the neighborhoods. This commission will hold public meetings and make reports to the CEO and Board members, she said. She promised each child will have a quality school.

To accomplish this smoothly, she said, she would be speaking to Springfield lawmakers to change the Illinois state law extending the required notice of school closing for four months. The current law requires that the Board present its list of schools to be closed by December 1 of each year. As if there has been no past, Byrd Bennett tried to explain that the delay of notice on school closings until March 31st will give parents and community more input. As written the state law —SB 630 — demands that CPS post the school actions on Dec.1st.

Public participation came next on the agenda and speakers were given their two minutes. But when Michael Brunson from the CTU was called to the mic. he had to first listen to a lecture from David Vitale, the millionaire banker who is Board President.

With forceful words, Mr. Vitale (who sits in control of 600 Chicago public schools but has no background in public education work) chastised Mr. Brunson, who had taught for years in one of Chicago's most impoverished communities (the Altgeld Gardens housing project) for several minutes. While Mr. Brunson was elected to serve the 27,000 members of the CTU, Mr. Vitale was appointed by the Mayor. (No one on the Board is elected; all serve at the wishes and demands of the Mayor).

Vitale specifically cited a newspaper statement from a CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey — "We are coming after you." Shakey had said those words while participating in a protest two days earlier, on Veterans Day, against the continued practice of CPS of ignoring the fact that TIF (Tax Increment Financing) dollars by the millions are going to favored corporations — and being denied to the city's public schools. The Veterans Day protest, which saw several hundred parents, teachers, students and community activists on the "Magnificent Mile", targeted the Hyatt hotels, which are owned largely by the Pritzker family. Billionaire Penny Pritzker is one of the seven members of the Chicago Board of Education appointed by Mayor Emanuel.

Vitale chastised the union for its “threatening language.” He also defended appointed billionaire Board member, Penny Pritzker, who, he claimed “never received or used TIF money.” He lashed at Michael Brunson (still waiting at the mic) claiming the union had protested in front of his house during the September strike and that the protest had frightened his daughter, a student at Payton High School who was at home because of the strike.

Vitale also reminded Brunson that he was being given a "privilege" to speak and didn’t have to wait in line. Finally, before letting Brunson speak, Vitale cautioned the union leader, “If you want us to act civilly to you, you will act civilly to us.”

“Now, I will offer you your two minutes.”

Two minutes is what members of the "public" get to describe the problems they are facing in the city's massive public schools. And Vitale acts as if those 120 seconds are a privilege that he and his fellow Board members might take away like a petulant nanny with rebellious charges.

And, to Mr. Brunson’s credit he didn’t take the bait to call Vitale a servant for the rich who want our public money but no public voices. Brunson said he was a “peace maker” and wanted to work with the Board. He gave them four proposals and ended with we will “not allow our schools to be closed.”

More specifically, Brunson proposed these four points.

1.) Prove that the charter schools you have permitted to operate are public schools. Show us their budgets and position files so we know who is doing what and how much everyone is being paid.

2.) Permit all Charter school staff to enroll in the pension fund to broaden the base of the fund.

3.) Permit all schools receiving public money to have a collective bargaining agreement. This will promote stability.

4.) Delay the closing of schools until a study is done on the impact on students, community and teachers. What happened to the Facility Task Force that was to show your 5 year plan for CPS schools. We need to see your long term plan.

Following Mr. Brunson was Andrew Broy, of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, who was received much more cordially by Vitale and the Board members. Broy talked about the quality of charter schools and why we need them.

The three hour meeting proceeded with various speakers for and against charter schools and a dozen other issues. Of note, a parent speaker, Wendy Katten, representing “Raise Your Hand,” did speak to the issue of over crowded classes in 357 schools and gave the Board a document. She is forming a class size hot line, where schools can make their complaints recorded and sent to the Board.

But, most surprising was the end of the “train wreck” meeting where several Board members needed to vent their frustration and anger at the teacher’s union.

The union has served notice on the Board that it wants a moratorium on school closings and a throughout study of the city's ever-expanding charter schools, which have been virtually unregulated and about which the public can find little accurate information.

Board member Andrea Zopp, a lawyer currently with the Chicago Urban League, was especially sharp. She made several points. There was “a lot of misinformation” about school closing, she said, and it must be corrected, she stated. She explained that the moratorium demanded by the CTU and its parent and community allies is wrong way to go. Waiting will be “unproductive,” she said, without ever explaining why CPS had not done its homework to meet the current legislative deadline.

We ha what she calls "over capacity." "You cannot 'kick the can down the road,'" she said, without explaining how capacity was being determined. She went on to explain that the “behavior of the CTU” is also an issue; that the board cannot permit their “threatening and intimidating language.” She misquoted the union — “If you dare to close schools, then we will personally attack you.” Her message was that the CTU needs to stop this language. And she made it clear that the Board was going to create a Hit List on its own time and stall the revelation as long as possible.

Board member, Henry Bienen had the last word with; “We will not work with this nonsense,” he argued. "Intimidation" is not going to stop the Board and its work, he said.

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