By sometime this spring, schoolchildren in Austin might find themselves sitting at home rather than in a classroom.
Renee Criswell, a teacher at Duke Ellington Elementary, 243 N. Parkside, says she doesn’t want that to happen but the city isn’t giving teachers any other choice but to strike.
Earlier this month, Chicago teachers voted to do just that as contract talks with Chicago Public Schools, which began in March, stalled. CPS says it will have to lay off 5,000 teachers as it stares down a roughly $1 billion budget deficit, and as it looks to the Illinois General Assembly for a lifeline of nearly $500 million.
But the city has only itself to blame for its financial mismanagement, argues Criswell, a 25-year veteran teacher who has also taught in North Lawndale. The city let neighborhood schools fall by the wayside while rolling out the red carpet for charter schools, Criswell says.
The city has 119 charter schools, most of which are on the West and South Sides. CPS has also pushed many good teachers, mostly African American in poor communities like Austin, out of the door.
“It’s like they’re trying to wipe our neighborhood schools off the map,” said Criswell, who joined thousands of Chicago teachers at a November solidarity rally in Grant Park.
The strike vote took place three weeks later in mid-December, with about 88 percent of the union’s roughly 24,700 members voting yes. If teachers walk next March, it’ll be the second time in four years they’ve gone on the picket line.
The September 2012 strike, the city’s first in 25 years, lasted eight days and ended with a deal that many viewed as a victory for the Chicago Teachers Union.
That contract ended this past June with CPS and the union still locking horns on such issues as class size and staffing levels.
CPS’ decision to close 50 schools throughout the city in 2013, including four in Austin, has also forced the teachers’ hands, according to Criswell, who insists Mayor Rahm Emanuel is pulling CPS’ strings.
“As he’s putting money in schools on the North Side, he’s closing our schools,” she said.
Brandon Johnson, an organizer with CTU, said West Side schools have been defunded for years. In the last 15 years, CPS has gone from a 41 percent, African-American faculty down to 25 percent, Johnson said. Chicago’s black teacher ranks have been decimated, he says.
“We’ve lost half of our black workers. And where do those folk work? They work in Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale. They work in Englewood,” Johnson said.
Tara Stamps, an Austin resident who teaches at Jenner Academy of the Arts on the South Side, said Chicago teachers are willing to make concessions but won’t be taken advantage of by CPS and the mayor.
Stamps was a candidate last spring for 37th Ward alderman, narrowly losing an April run-off to incumbent Emma Mitts.
The union’s contract demands include ensuring every school has enough staff – including counselors, nurses and restorative justice coordinators – to meets students’ needs. Other demands not typically part of such contract negotiations include the city transferring tax increment financing revenues to the schools. The union also want a halt to more charter schools and school closings.
The stalemate between the two sides led to a mediator getting involved in August to help iron out differences. But with little obvious headway, Chicago teachers moved earlier this month to authorize a possible strike.
“We don’t want to strike, but we’ll do what we have to do, by any means necessary,” Stamps said. “We’re prepared to fight.”
AustinTalks contacted CPS for comment, but the district did not respond.