As former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett stood before a federal judge on the day of her sentencing last week, a grammar school special education teacher named Sarah Chambers began the third week of her school board-imposed suspension.
There’s a connection between the two cases, as you’ll soon see.
Byrd-Bennett was the quintessential go-along-to-get-along bureaucrat, who agreed to be the public face on the city’s decision to close 50 schools in predominantly poor, black communities in 2012.
In exchange for her subservience on that racially charged issue, Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed Byrd-Bennett to the top schools post.
Then, in 2013, Mayor Rahm’s school board appointees unanimously approved a $20 million consulting contract to a couple of scam artists who were kicking back some of the money to B-3, as the mayor so affectionately nicknamed her.
It took a federal investigation to nail Byrd-Bennett, though it was obvious to just about every onlooker from the get-go that the consulting deal smelled to high heaven.
By contrast, Chambers is an outspoken activist who frequently shows up at school board meetings to thunder her disapproval at cuts to special education funding, which hammer hardest at the system’s most vulnerable children.
Generally, Chambers is the one in a T-shirt that reads: “CPS has $$$ for banks but not Special Ed?”
In early April, the mayor’s school appointees suspended Chambers from her job at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy, a grammar school in Little Village where she’s taught for the last eight years.
They still haven’t explained why they suspended her. But in doing so, they effectively sent a “You’d better think twice” message to other teachers who might be considering resisting the mayor’s cuts and policies.
So what’s the connection between B-3 and Chambers? As you can see, it pays to be a flunky in Rahm’s Chicago—so long as the FBI isn’t reading your e-mails.
Anyway, let’s take a deeper dive into the Chambers case.
For the last few years, Chambers has been at the forefront of a spirited resistance to mayoral efforts to curtail special education spending by limiting the number of kids identified by the district as special-needs students.
To keep costs down, CPS has, among other things, dragged out the time it takes to diagnose students to see if they qualify to be in a separate special ed classroom or have one-on-one assistance from a teacher’s aide.
Chambers contends that CPS is making it difficult for children to get into special education because the district wants to spend special ed money on other things.
But Forrest Claypool—CPS’s current CEO—says they’re just taking longer to diagnose kids because they’re looking out for the best interests of poor, black children by making sure they’re not erroneously placed in a special education classes.
You know, B-3 also said they were looking out for black kids to justify closing the schools. As a general rule, dear readers, I think it’s a good idea not to believe it when Rahm or one of his school appointees says they’re doing something to help poor, black people.
—Sarah Chambers, suspended CPS special education teacher
Sure enough, Katie Drews, an investigative reporter for the Better Government Association, did a little digging and discovered that there are proportionately more whites than blacks in special education.
So clearly, this isn’t a case of CPS overdiagnosing black students for special education.
Looks like Claypool’s going to have to come up with a new explanation.
In her speeches before the board, Chambers generally points out that it’s insane to run a system so inadequately funded that it must borrow hundreds of millions of dollars each year to pay for basic services. That means money that might otherwise go for things we want—like special education—winds up being spent paying interest to bankers.
And nobody wants that—except maybe the bankers.
Well, apparently, folks at CPS got tired of listening to Chambers. On April 6, a bureaucrat in the office of employee engagement sent Chambers a letter that said: “You are temporarily removed from duty at [Saucedo]. You should remain at home pending the result of an investigation of the incident/matter in question. You are prohibited from being on Board premises. You will continue to receive pay until you receive further notice.”
And what exactly is the “incident/matter in question”? The board still hasn’t told her, and Emily Bittner, a CPS spokeswoman, said in a statement only that “Ms. Chambers engaged in misconduct that created cause to move to dismiss her.”
It seems as if CPS suspended Chambers while they looked around for a reason to justify having suspended her. It’s straight out of Kafka.
Chambers’s theory is that Claypool and Emanuel are trying to send a message to teachers who dare to speak out.
“They’re trying to intimidate other teachers,” she says. “People might think, ‘Look what happened to Sarah. I don’t want that to happen to me.’ ”
It’s reminiscent of what happened last year to Troy LaRaviere, the former principal of Blaine Elementary School.
In that case, CPS unceremoniously removed LaRaviere from Blaine after he lambasted the mayor and the board for, among other things, wasting money on privatizing janitorial services that have left schools filthier than ever.
After being removed, LaRaviere was elected president of the Chicago Principals & Administrators Association and is talking about possibly running for mayor in 2019.
Ironically, since the board removed Chambers from her classroom, she’s had time to join protests against everyone from Rahm to Rauner to Trump.
“I thought they might make me report to a district office,” Chamber says. “But it’s more like I’m under home arrest. I’d rather be in a classroom. But in a weird way, it’s like they’re paying me to be a protester.”
Apparently, Rahm and his CPS appointees will do just about anything to avoid spending money on special education. v