By AARON GETTINGER
The Chicago Teachers Union protested chronic cleanliness and maintenance issues across Chicago Public Schools at Kenwood Academy High School, 5015 S. Blackstone Ave., the morning of Friday, April 13. In a publicity stunt, three protesters in hazmat-like suits—they were not impermeable—unsuccessfully attempted to gain access to the building to perform their own “volunteer snap inspection” and declare the facility closed until Mayor Rahm Emanuel moves to solve the systemic issues.
Public concern has mounted since the Chicago Sun-Times reported last month that scores of CPS schools had failed “blitz” health inspections and were liable for thousands of dollars in fines from the Chicago Department of Public Health. Fines at Kenwood Academy could amount to $25,750 every day.
“We’re demanding accountability,” said CTU organizer Brandon Johnson. “The Board of Education is required in this, but, again, the mayor’s handpicked board is refusing to actually stand up for the interests of families and students across this city.”
Johnson said, “The Mayor of Chicago would not allow these kinds of conditions in his children’s school. Why is it okay for black and brown students and parents to send their kids to schools that are filthy? What type of mayor would do that?”
He said Emanuel’s decision to stand for re-election is “an insult to democracy.”
Kenwood teacher Michael Shea said the city should change its priorities.
“We certainly don’t need $2 billion going to Jeff Bezos so he can fund clean rooms for his space program while we’re just trying to get clean classrooms,” Shea said referencing Chicago’s incentive-stuffed bid to host online retailer Amazon’s second headquarters.
Gordon Mayer, a Kenwood Academy parent, referenced classroom temperature spikes, rampant trash and teachers purchasing their own cleaning supplies in his remarks.
“We knew there was a problem, and they knew there was a problem,” Mayer said, referencing previous maintenance concerns at the school acknowledged by members of the Chicago Board of Education. “It makes me feel that Kenwood Academy could have been a canary in a coal mine that wasn’t really listed to. So it’s really disappointing to see that not as much that could be done has been done.”
Mayer said, “I hope this will be an opportunity for people to wake up and look for a better way to manage the cleanliness of our schools.”
Organizers responded negatively to Emanuel’s announcement that CPS would spend $7 million to hire 200 janitors, saying only 100 of them would still be working full-time after the summer break—“far too few to address the scope of the crisis.”
CPS janitors had previously threatened strike action, saying that the schools were dirty and poorly maintained because Aramark, which CPS contracts to manage custodial services, has laid-off too many janitors. CTU said that about 1,000 positions have been cut since 2012.
“This does not even begin to address all of the problems that we have in our schools,” said CTU Recording Secretary Michael Brunson. “We have a better solution for this: Re-empower the Chicago Teachers Union. Let us bargain on behalf of not only our members but our students also,” referring to HB 4776, currently in the Illinois General Assembly, that would restore CTU’s ability to bargain and strike over non-monetary issues like school cleanliness.
Brunson also called for “an elected, representative school board” and an end to overcrowded classrooms.
No one answered the door for those in the hazmat suit. “They don’t want a deep cleaning here because they don’t care about these schools,” said CTU Communications Director Chris Geovanis. “The doors are closed [on] people from the community who care deeply and want to help, because Rahm Emanuel does not care about the students in our public schools.”