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School Board president lambasts teachers union for ‘spewing lies’

Jesse Sharkey | Sun-Times Library

Jesse Sharkey | Sun-Times Library

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School board president dresses down CTU
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Updated: December 19, 2012 11:53AM

Chicago School Board members Wednesday accused Chicago Teachers Union officials of “spewing lies,’’ issuing threats and trying to “intimidate’’ them into not closing half-empty schools.

One target of the attack — CTU vice president Jesse Sharkey — later shot back by accusing the board president of being “silly” and thin-skinned.

The verbal salvos in the annual battle over school closings kicked into high gear Wednesday during the School Board’s monthly meeting.

They began when CTU Recording Secretary Michael Brunson stepped up to the microphone to make a comment, and Board President David Vitale unloaded on him.

Vitale noted that Brunson’s colleague, Sharkey, had told a Tuesday rally outside the Hyatt Regency Chicago that “we’re here to serve notice to the appointed [school] board that if you close our schools, we’re coming after you.’’ That amounted to “threatening us,’’ Vitale said.

Vitale said the CTU “continues to spew lies about us,” in particular by saying School Board member Penny Pritzker, who also serves on the Hyatt hotels board, and the Hyatt received tax increment financing money to build a Hyatt in Hyde Park. Hyatt officials have said the developer received the $5.2 million in TIF funds.

Vitale also accused the CTU of having “members march on my home’’ during the September school strike. His daughter was home alone at the time and was “so concerned she made a phone call,’’ Vitale said.

“This is not civil behavior,’’ Vitale said. “You shouldn’t be threatening people. You shouldn’t be lying about board members. You shouldn’t be trying to intimidate people.’’

Brunson insisted he was just at the board meeting “as the peace maker,’’ but concluded by saying “we will not allow you to shut down our schools” — a statement that irked other board members.

“Threats and intimidation are not acceptable,’’ said Board member Andrea Zopp, CEO of the Chicago Urban League.

“That’s the main point,’’ agreed board member Henry Bienen, former president of Northwestern University. “No one is going to be intimidated by such nonsense.’’

“Frankly, David Vitale has to have a thicker skin,’’ Sharkey said later. “I didn’t mean we’re coming after the board personally. That’s ridiculous. This is a big political issue .... We’re taking it seriously.’’

Sharkey said he never organized — and knew nothing about — a march on Vitale’s home. Sharkey noted that he sat across the negotiating table from Vitale during the strike and “If David Vitale was so upset about it, he could have said something to me face to face,’’ Sharkey said. “David has a thin skin about this protest stuff.’’

And, Sharkey said, he never said Pritzker personally benefitted from a TIF. But, he said, if Pritzker is going to sit on the school board, she should “defend the financial interests of the schools … and speak out against [TIF] giveaways” that Sharkey contended divert tax dollars from schools.

Also Wednesday, Wendy Katten of the parent group Raise Your Hand , urged board members not to let their rush to close half-empty schools further aggravate schools that are already overcrowded. She pointed to a Raise Your Hand analysis indicating 357 of 470 CPS elementary schools have at least one grade with class sizes above the CPS-recommended limits, and 21 percent had three to four grades above limits.

Other parent groups urged the board to also consider academics — and not just utilization rates — when it closes schools. They demanded CPS expand charter, magnet and selective enrollment schools that work, or at least invest in low-performing “level 3” schools by giving them to other school managers or inserting a high-quality magnet cluster program in them.

Juan Jose Gonzalez of Stand for Children said he was not ready to call for the closure of low-performing charters, even though recent CPS data indicates 31 percent of charter elementary schools fall into the bottom level. But, Gonzalez said, “to not emphasize performance [when deciding to close schools] means we are just shuffling chairs on the Titanic.’’

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