As Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot kowtows to Chicago Teachers Union bosses who defy her plans to reopen the public schools, three issues are being lost in all the drama:
1. All the talk is just about K-8 schools opening. Few are talking about the closed high schools and all those kids lost — except when there’s another hit in the wave of Chicago carjackings by a teenager who might otherwise be in school.
2. Many Chicago teachers want to be in the classroom. But with Lightfoot constantly caving to CTU leaders, teachers I’ve spoken with are fearful of speaking out, concerned that they’ll be left without cover and targeted for reprisal by union bosses.
3. Lightfoot picks needless fights with aldermen while taxpayers become restless and Chicago’s violent crime rates skyrocket, a formula for a one-term mayor.
“Schools are closed and no resolution, and crime is up, and violent crime is the deep snow for this mayor,” said Ald. Raymond Lopez, 15th, a Lightfoot critic and a frequent target of her sharp tongue. “She fights with police. She fights with aldermen. She fights with teachers. All people see is a perpetual state of political war. Ask Donald Trump how that worked out.”
A Black alderman who wants to be more supportive of Lightfoot put it this way:
“I really don’t know who’s giving her advice and if she even takes it anymore,” he told me. “She doesn’t give anybody any cover, not aldermen who want to support her, not teachers who want to be in school. And street crime for this mayor is getting to be like the snow for other mayors.”
You may have forgotten the snowpocalypse of 1979 that cost then-Mayor Michael Bilandic his reelection. But every Chicago politician knows the cautionary tale, except perhaps Lightfoot, who grew up in Ohio.
Bilandic’s administration was overwhelmed by repeated and brutal cycles of heavy snow followed by deep freezes that paralyzed the city. And so, Jane Byrne shocked the world and was elected mayor, which set off decades of political and institutional chaos.
Under Lightfoot, the city can now handle the snow because it’s muscle memory for the Department of Streets and Sanitation.
But the coronavirus pandemic, along with the closing of schools with no end in sight while most private schools and public charter schools remain open, all add to the frustration of Chicago parents and taxpayers.
And with violent crime skyrocketing, all of it becomes part of a formula for a one-term mayor.
“Crime is up. Look at the carjackings, the homicides,” Northwest Side Ald. Anthony Napolitano, 41st, told me.
“Our parents love our schools and love our teachers. Our teachers are incredible. But our families are stuck in the middle. We’ve done surveys in my ward, and most of our parents by ratios of 65% to 85% overwhelmingly want the kids back in school.”
The crime rates in January alone, and the frustration of families over closed schools, add to a perception of mayoral weakness. And that invites challenges and sniping. It’s the Chicago Way of politics.
“It was snow for Bilandic,” said Napolitano. “It’s schools and violent crime for Lightfoot. She’s not my biggest fan. But neither was (former mayor) Rahm Emanuel. But he’d talk to me person to person. He drew a line between the personal and business. She doesn’t. Everything’s personal with her.”
Napolitano does give Lightfoot credit for a statement she made days ago as talks with the CTU fizzled. Lightfoot called out the union for unrealistic demands.
“We got a proposal from the other side that included things like defunding the police and having CTU dictate housing policy in the city,” Lightfoot said in a recording on her Twitter feed. “Obviously, neither of these two things is appropriate for bargaining on a teachers’ contract. We can get a deal done.”
As I write this, no deal has been done. Many teachers want to be in the classroom. They know their duty as educators. Yet some, who support their union, are afraid to speak.
“There is a pattern of cases of rank-and-file CTU members that have spoken out against the CTU leadership agenda, and those members have been ostracized and alienated, causing an our-way-or-the-highway mentality where it’s daunting to disagree with the union bosses,” a veteran teacher told me.
Another teacher, who wants to remain anonymous, wrote to the Tribune. She wants to be in the classroom. She works at a racially diverse school. She knows her students are falling behind, increasingly susceptible to depression and mental health issues.
Her letter is heartbreaking.
“I am a teacher, and I want to sincerely apologize to my students, your parents/guardians, and the community at large. Because I am a teacher, I am able to move near the front of the line to get vaccinated for COVID-19 and protect myself, ahead of millions in our state. I foolishly and naively thought getting vaccinated would allow me to return to in-person teaching with my students, who are suffering before my eyes each day, absolutely crushing my soul.
“Much to my dismay, I have been informed by leadership that I will not be allowed to return, even after being vaccinated. This is morally and ethically wrong … I am not the only teacher who feels this way but feel utterly helpless against the powers that be.
“ … I am embarrassed to call myself an educator. I feel guilt for ever thinking that teachers put students first. For these reasons, I am sorry. You, my students, deserve better, you deserve braver. I am so sorry.”
Helplessness and frustration often turn into resentment, and what then?