Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Freaky week for Chicago Public Schools

All within the confines of a single business day, the Chicago Public Schools learned earlier this week they were the losers in a legal dispute against their teachers union, while also having to engage in totalitarian tactics against parents who want to think of themselves as trying to preserve their neighborhood school.

In short, the public schools system had a freaky Monday.

IT WAS ON that day that a U.S. District Judge ruled that the school district blew it when they tried to lay off more than 700 teachers – all of whom had been with the schools long enough to qualify for that unique educational job protection known as tenure.

The Chicago Public Schools had laid off 1,300 teachers, about 700 of whom had tenure – which should have protected their jobs from such cuts. School officials have said the district’s financial situation is so severe that the cuts are necessary.

U.S. District Judge David Coar disagreed. His ruling gives the schools 30 days to work with the Chicago Teachers Union to come up with a process by which those tenured teachers can be rehired.

Although it should be noted that the Chicago Tribune reports that the schools had managed to find ways to rehire some of those teachers – even before the federal court ruling. Of the tenured teachers who had lost their jobs, 417 of them had already been rehired for different jobs within the Chicago Public Schools system.

OF COURSE, THAT is not stopping the school district from considering an appeal of Coar’s ruling. It’s not like they don’t want the tenured teachers back. They don’t want a court ruling that says they did something wrong. They want to be able to portray any re-hires as something they’re doing from the goodness of their collective heart – not because they have to.

This seems to be a procedural question. Attorneys for the teachers union have argued that the problem lies with the way the school district handled the layoffs. They were just dumped. There were no hearings that theoretically would give them a chance to argue the merits of keeping them on the payroll. There was no “due process.”

There also were questions over severance pay, which public schools officials argued was not necessary in this case because the cuts were being made for economic reasons.

There also was the fact that Chicago Public Schools officials had argued that some of the layoffs were due to bad performance on the job, although it was never made clear which teachers were being let go for job flaws and which for budgetary reasons.

COAR, WHO HEARD arguments last month from attorneys for both sides, issued his ruling in favor of the teachers union earlier this week, and included a segment in his written ruling saying that many of the teachers who were let go from their jobs actually had never received unsatisfactory reviews of their on-the-job performance.

It would be nice if this could be settled within the next few weeks. But this is likely to be an issue that will linger in the courts for far too long, and likely will increase the amount of tension that exists within the administration of the Chicago Public Schools.

I’d like to think it was not that “tension” being put on display when schools officials gave the order to cut off heat to the field house of an old school building in the Pilsen neighborhood that is being occupied these days by area residents.

Whittier Elementary School, near Wolcott and 23rd streets, has been the site of a sit-in since mid-September. People want the field house structure preserved and converted into a library. School officials say they don’t have the money to do anything with the structure – except tear it down.

WHICH THEY ARGUE is necessary on the grounds that the structure is no longer safe. They argue the land could then be turned into a park or some other form of “green space” that area children would be able to use.

The same school officials who that day had lost in court against their teachers claim they’re not being vindictive against the parents who are refusing to leave the field house. They say having Peoples Gas cut off the heat is a precautionary measure so that inspectors can make one last inspection of the structure before they begin demolition.

But the Chicago Sun-Times reports that the parents in the building see this as an attempt to freeze them out – particularly since the overnight temperatures were dropping to as low as the mid-40 degrees.

For what it is worth, there haven’t been individuals holed up in the old field house every single moment since the sit-in began on Sept. 15. The parents are working in shifts, giving each other relief while ensuring that someone is in the building at all times so as to create an obstacle – should someone actually try to proceed with demolition,.

THOSE PEOPLE ARE managing to cope with the autumn temperatures by using electric heaters – which has me concerned more than anything else because I, as a reporter-type person, have written (and heard) way too many stories throughout the years of people suffering carbon-monoxide poisoning or of fires starting because of heater accidents. I only hope this sit-in situation does not take on tragic overtones.

But I do get my chuckle over the studies that have been done of the field house’s structural integrity. The Chicago Public Schools has an engineering firm that says the building must come down, while the parents came up with their own engineering study that says the roof could be rebuilt to allow the structure to survive.

So how does 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis respond to this? Perhaps with the ultimate political solution.

He wants to hire a third engineering firm to study the structure – thereby adding to the amount of time in which this field house remains an issue, which might ultimately make losing in the federal courts the least of the problems experienced this week by the Chicago Public Schools.


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