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Toni Preckwinkle rips Emanuel, says CPS closure plan ‘weakens our public schools’

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Updated: June 18, 2013 8:36AM



Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle broadly criticized Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s education agenda Thursday, saying the Chicago Public Schools teachers’ strike last year had provided the excuse for a sweeping school-closure plan that “weakens our public schools.”

In an exclusive interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, she suggested the mayor and his handpicked schools officials refrain from shuttering 13 of the 54 schools marked for closure. She noted that hearing officers hired to oversee the process recommended that those schools stay open.

The CPS plan “didn’t reflect any of the concerns raised by the community in those hearings nor the recommendations of the hearing officers,” she alleged.

“What was the point of having public hearings?” Preckwinkle said during a 20-minute interview in her office. “Was it all a charade? If you weren’t going to pay any attention to the outcome of the public hearings or the recommendations of the public hearing officers, why would you bother to waste everyone’s time?”

Pressed to clarify whether she held Emanuel responsible, Preckwinkle replied, “I think those recommendations should be taken seriously and I haven’t heard that, either from the Board of Education or the fifth floor” — the mayor’s office.

The Sun-Times’ request for a response from Emanuel’s office was instead answered by the mayor’s schools chief, Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

“The blame game hasn’t worked for our students, and it’s time for the adults to stop pointing fingers and start becoming a part of the solution,” Byrd-Bennett said in an email to the Sun-Times.

Byrd-Bennett said she was surprised because she had multiple conversations with Preckwinkle recently and “at no time did she raise any concerns or ask any questions.”

Although Preckwinkle conceded that “some schools in some neighborhoods” must close because of dramatically dropping enrollment, she added, “The case hasn’t been made to me that all this money is going to be saved. I’ve talked to people inside CPS who say the savings are pretty modest or nonexistent.”

The teachers’ strike, she said, “provided an excuse for closing schools, which I think was going to happen anyway. . . . The argument was, ‘We gave the teachers the raises they wanted, therefore we have to close schools.’ ”

Earlier this week, at a meeting of the Public Building Commission board, Preckwinkle cast the lone vote against awarding $160 million in construction contracts to prepare schools for students moving from schools that will close.

On Thursday, however, Preckwinkle made clear her problems with Emanuel’s approach to education go far deeper than his plan for closing schools.

Preckwinkle bemoaned “the way in which the teachers were demonized.”

Was the mayor among those she deemed guilty of unfairly blaming teachers?

“I think he came into office critical of the teachers,” she replied. “If you spend the whole year before you have to negotiate a contract insulting your teachers, I don’t know what you expect. They had a contract that said they were entitled to a raise, and then the Board of Education that he appointed refused to give it to them. That was the first summer that he came into office.”

Asked if she expected closing so many schools would trigger teacher layoffs, Preckwinkle replied, “How could it not? How could it not? It weakens the teachers’ union and I would argue it weakens our public schools. You know, one of the people in the public schools who I admire most talked to me a couple months ago — it was so depressing — the comment was, ‘I think they’re deliberately trying to destroy our public schools.’ ”

In her email to the Sun-Times, Byrd-Bennett specifically rebutted only one of Preckwinkle’s statements — her assertion that “if you have a widget factory, and it’s not producing good widgets . . . you don’t say, ‘Hey workers, it’s all your fault that the widgets aren’t coming out right.’ ”

The CPS CEO shot back: “Our children aren’t widgets and we aren’t running a factory — we’re trying to give children trapped in under-resourced schools a better education.”

In the interview, Preckwinkle repeatedly pointed out she was a teacher before she became a politician. But she said has no plans to add mayor to her resume. Her first term as county board president ends next year, while Emanuel is up for re-election the following year.

“I’m running for re-election for the job I’ve got,” Preckwinkle said. “I’ve got a lot of work to do and it’s going to take another five years at least to do it.”



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