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CPS calls teacher’s mom to tell him he’s getting laid off

Xian Barrett is one many Chicago Public School teachers who got laid off Friday. July 19 2013 | Alex Wroblewski~Sun-Times

Xian Barrett is one of the many Chicago Public School teachers who got laid off on Friday. July 19, 2013 | Alex Wroblewski~Sun-Times

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Updated: August 21, 2013 6:12AM



Gage Park High School teacher Xian Barrett learned Friday morning he was one of 2,113 Chicago Public Schools employees losing his job from his mother.

Why the principal called his emergency contact instead of his primary number, he isn’t sure. But when Barrett returned the message his mother relayed from his principal, he was read the script thanking him for his service — but pink-slipping him.

“The fact that there’s a script and it has in it, ‘Thank you for the service to the kids’ but no details — the fact that it’s always done this impersonally. It’s not just about firing. It’s how CPS treats their students. They’re interchangeable, and the relationships in their lives are interchangeable,” Barrett, 35, told the Sun-Times Friday. It went better, though, than the first time the district laid him off in 2010, when the principal —who also called his mother — went right into the script.

“The principal laid off my mom,” said Barrett, recipient of a prestigious and national U.S. Department of Education Teaching Fellowship, and a tenured teacher of law and of Chicago history at Gage Park on the Southwest Side. His law class typically spent Monday mornings with a triage of cases kids brought to him that friends or relatives were involved in.

“We get to a point where we’re called to serve the entire community. What I just challenge people to think about is that one teacher who made the difference in your life and what would happen if they were torn out of the fabric of your life,” Barrett said.

Barrett didn’t yet know how many of his Gage Park colleagues were part of the massive layoffs that hit Friday.

In one of the city’s largest teacher layoffs ever, the district pink slipped 2,113 teachers and other employees, largely due to what the district called a giant pension obligation increase that’s straining the system.

Of those laid off, 1,036 are teachers and 1,077 are support staff, with the laid-off teachers accounting for about 4 percent of last year’s total faculty of 23,290.

Budget cuts are to blame for 815 support staff, 398 tenured teachers and 510 non-tenured teachers; school closings for 68 support staff employees and 194 food staff employees, and changes in school enrollments account for rest, the district said.

Another 161 highly-rated teachers from the 48 schools that closed permanently in June also learned later Friday they will not follow their students to new schools -- there aren’t enough open jobs in the receiving schools, according to CPS spokeswoman Kelley Quinn. Their positions have been cut, but they’re not technically laid off since they continue to collect full pay and benefits in a teacher reassignment pool for the first five months of the school year, and slightly lower pay in the cadre substitute pool for the next five months, Quinn said.

The district, which has been saying for weeks it would “minimize cuts to the classroom” while staring down a historic budget deficit, blames the layoffs on a $400 million increase in annual teacher pension payments. Those payments jumped this year from about $196 million a year to about $600 million because a three-year period of pension relief came to an end, CPS said.

In a statement Friday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the cuts “yet another painful reminder to Springfield that we need immediate pension relief.

“With a billion dollar budget deficit, decreased enrollment and ballooning pension costs, CPS has been forced to make extremely difficult choices to put our school district in the best position to be successful next year and beyond,” the mayor’s statement said.

Flanked by teachers and parents Friday afternoon, CTU vice president Jesse Sharkey called the layoffs “outrageous.”

“The school day for students got more than 20 percent longer and yet now we see massive layoffs in the staff that’s supposed to be delivering the educational content that makes that school day better. I don’t see the point of making the school day 20 percent longer and then laying off all the art music, physical education teachers that were supposed to fill the day up with education,” he said. “This is the starving of public schools through insufficient revenue and when the district first said they would be closing 50 public schools in order to save money, I think that was about the right answer...What it means is we’re offering a more and more meagre and a poorer education.”

He seemed doubtful the CTU could restore any of the jobs without major change in Springfield or city leadership, just as the union and its supporters weren’t able to save schools from closing: “The public disagreed with the school closings and yet we couldn’t soften the heart of Pharaoh, those school closings still went through.”

The layoffs come about a month after 850 other employees were laid off — 545 of them teachers — mostly due to the closure of 48 schools.

They include teachers, teacher assistants, clerks, technology coordinators, instructional aides, lunchroom workers and security guards.

Some of the teachers could be replaced by Teach For America recruits, as the district has committed to more than doubling its investment in the TFA program that trains college graduates for five weeks then sends them into schools for two years at a time. The Board of Education voted to increase its payment to TFA from $600,000 to nearly $1.6 million, and to add up to 325 new TFA recruits to CPS classrooms, in addition to 270 second year “teacher interns”.

TFA spokeswoman Becky O’Neill said about 200 of the new recruits are destined for charters, the rest to interview for openings in neighborhood schools.

“We’re looking forward to getting more information and better understanding how all of this impacts the schools and principals with whom we partner,” she said.

Sharkey denounced CPS’ TFA placements “at the same time it’s laying off veterans. This is an organization who started out saying their mission was to serve underserved children with a teachers shortage. There’s no longer a teacher shortage.”

The tumultuous news capped a year of upheaval that included a teacher strike, the implementation of longer school days, mass school closings, budget cuts and a new school budgeting system that grants autonomy - but also tough spending decisions and less money - to principals.

Principals from the affected schools began notifying employees Friday morning. RuthAugspurger, the art teacher at Carson Elementary School, 5516 S. Maplewood Ave., said she got a call from her principal saying her position was cut - but that’s all she remembers from the shock.

“I believe that every child should have the privilege to have the highest level of education,” the veteran teacher of 9 1/2 years who originally moved to Chicago to attend Art Institute of Chicago, said crying, “so knowing there were many challenges to teaching in this district I decided to stay here for almost a decade.”

Parent group Raise Your Hand called the CPS announcement “a frightening day for the children of Chicago.”

“Our mayor has chosen to prioritize property tax spending on unnecessary and frivolous projects such as $55 million for a stadium for DePaul University, while CPS continues to receive drastic funding cuts that severely impact our children’s ability to thrive and learn,” they said in a statement Friday. “The mayor’s decision not to use TIF money to offset some of these cuts is deeply disappointing and is forcing many parents to leave the city.”

Contributing: Mitch Dudek



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