RIVER NORTH — Union teachers charged the mayor is ultimately responsible for the revenue crisis that has brought on public-school budget cuts and this week's wave of layoffs.
"There's a note of hypocrisy here," said Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey.
He pointed to how Mayor Rahm Emanuel had found innovative ways to fund the NATO summit, the proposed DePaul University arena, bike lanes, bike rentals, the riverwalk improvements and the like, "but won't lift a finger to address the revenue crisis that has affected the public schools."
At a news conference Friday at CTU Headquarters in the Merchandise Mart, laid-off teachers and troubled parents spoke on the effect of the 3,000 recent CPS job cuts — 850 last month and another 2,100 this week — to accompany this year's 50 school closings. But the common refrain was the mayor is ultimately responsible for the funding crisis.
Sharkey spoke of the longer school day imposed by the mayor, but the failure to pay for the people to staff it, saying, "I don't see the point of making school 20-some percent longer and then laying off the art, music and physical-education teachers who are supposed to fill the day with education."
"Our profession is basically under siege," said Tammie Vincent, a special-ed teacher at the closing Emmett Elementary. "They're destabilizing the whole Austin area."
Ruth Augspurger said she had been an art teacher for 10 years at Carson Elementary on the South Side "until this morning," when she received a layoff call from the principal. She almost broke down in talking how it struck at her faith in public education, saying, "I believe that every child should have the privilege to have the highest level of education."
"Our heart really does go out to our members and their families who are struggling through this," Sharkey said. "Their world has been rocked."
"To say the least, this is heartbreaking," said Victoria Benson, chairman of the Portage Park Elementary Local School Council. "It is very devastating. I'd like to know how they expect these kids to excel in larger class sizes.
"They are failing us," she added of CPS and Emanuel. "They are failing our kids more than anything."
CPS referred the matter to the Mayor's Office, which did not reply to requests for comment.
Timothy Meeghan, a teacher of social studies at Roosevelt High School and a parent of a student at Mitchell Elementary, spoke of the need for an elected school board responsive to the people rather than the mayor. "An elected school board would locate new sources of revenue at times like this," he said. "Don't tell us that there's no money in this city to educate children. This is criminal."
University of Illinois at Chicago economics professor Joe Persky said the revenue sources are there, suggesting development funds, restructured bank loans, a progressive city income tax (imposed on suburban commuters as well) and a financial-transfer tax of 25 cents on the buyer and seller at the city's financial markets.
"Are these funds impossible to find or are people just unwilling to look for them?" Persky said. "If we wanted to do it, there is a way to do it. The question is not one of feasibility. The question is one of whether we have the will."
"This is the starving of public schools with insufficient revenue," Sharkey said. "But I think really what this comes down to in the end is a lack of political will and political willingness to pursue revenue, and that's what our schools really need."
Sharkey said budget cuts "are hitting neighborhood schools the hardest," but "we still haven't seen a comprehensive picture of where the layoffs are hitting across the city," as school cuts and news of the layoffs came piecemeal this week.
Sharkey was unsure about the ultimate effect of Local School Councils rejecting the budgets they've been handed by CPS, saying, "It's gonna mean more instability and difficulty in the schools.
"At the local school level, people are scrambling to figure out how their school's gonna work," he added. "You've got principals out there who are literally at their wits end.
"Ultimately, it's gonna produce some political fallout," Sharkey said. But in the meantime, he added, "we're gonna have to survive, which is what teachers always do, what parents always do, and what members of the community always do."