For nearly ten years the teachers at Haugan elementary begged schools officials to add new classrooms to their overcrowded building. “We said, ‘Just give us an addition and we’ll be happy,'” says Mary Orr, a kindergarten teacher at Haugan.

A whole new building is slated to open in September two blocks north of Haugan, but the teachers aren’t happy. That’s because it won’t be an addition. It will be a separate middle school, and a charter school to boot.

Haugan, located at 4540 N. Hamlin, was built for 1,400 students, but by the mid-90s it had more than 1,600. Albany Park’s school-age population was soaring as immigrants and refugees moved there from Europe, Mexico, and Central America and from nearby gentrifying neighborhoods. Teachers pleaded with schools CEO Paul Vallas to build an addition, pointing out that they were teaching in hallways, broom closets, and the auditorium. “Wherever there was space there was a classroom,” says Orr. “It was a mess.”

In 1997 Vallas promised to build an addition close to Haugan, and last spring the school board finally broke ground, at Hamlin and Leland. Shortly before, Mayor Daley unveiled his Renaissance 2010 plan, which is supposed to close more than 70 underutilized and underachieving schools and replace them with 100 smaller schools. “We didn’t think Renaissance 2010 would apply to us,” says Caryn Block, a fourth-grade teacher at Haugan. “We’re not underachieving, and we’re certainly not underutilized.”

Haugan is actually a Chicago Public Schools success story. It’s a neighborhood school, so it takes all comers. It can’t restrict enrollment to students who have high test scores or whose parents have the drive to fill out application forms and then keep pushing to get their kids enrolled, as parents who want their kids to go to the city’s charter and magnet schools have to do. Over 90 percent of its students come from low-income families, and 38 percent come from homes where English isn’t spoken. Yet in 2004, 58 percent of the students had scores on standardized math and reading tests that were average or above average, which is unusual for a school with so many low-income kids. Last year the board even gave Haugan an award for having such good test scores.

Given that record, says Orr, “We always thought that the new school would be part of Haugan. Our understanding was that it would be the Haugan middle school–it would house the upper grades. You know, sixth, seventh, eighth. And we’d be all one family, so to speak.”

But last November schools CEO Arne Duncan announced that the new school wouldn’t automatically be affiliated with Haugan, though Haugan would indeed lose its upper grades and the new school would have only those grades. He also said he was going to oversee a competition to determine who had the best plan for running the new school. Two groups applied: Aspira of Illinois, a Hispanic social-service agency based in Humboldt Park, and a coalition of Haugan upper-grade teachers and CPS administrators.

The competition turned into a behind-the-scenes political battle as each side lined up high-ranking allies. One of Aspira’s board members was Norma Reyes, commissioner of the city’s consumer services department, and it had the backing of state senators Iris Martinez and Miguel del Valle. The Haugan teachers had the support of 39th Ward alderman Margaret Laurino, one of Daley’s most loyal City Council allies.

Aspira’s backers argued that it was time a Hispanic group was given control of a Renaissance 2010 school. “Renaissance 2010 is a program targeting African-American schools,” del Valle told the Tribune last August. “I don’t recall seeing one Hispanic school being mentioned. What is in 2010 for the Latino community?”

In January Duncan awarded control of the school to Aspira. “It was a very tough decision–both sides had community support and good proposals,” says board spokesman Peter Cunningham. “But in the end we just felt Aspira had the better proposal.”

Privately one central-office insider concedes that politics played a role, noting that the board had already promised to build another new school in Laurino’s ward. “Yeah, this is Chicago, and yeah, politics plays a role,” says the insider. “Marge and Martinez were really pressing hard, but there was this feeling that, look, we already gave Marge a school.”

Duncan insists the decision wasn’t political. “Absolutely not,” he says. “The easy answer was to give it to the old Haugan–and create a big school and the kids get lost. These kids won’t fall through the cracks. We’re trying to move away from big schools. We’re believers in small schools.”

Haugan’s disappointed teachers say money was also an issue. The system is $93 million in debt. Around 2,000 teachers have been fired in the last two years, and last week Duncan announced that he’s laying off 156 central-office employees and will have to lay off more as well as trim the sports and after-school budgets unless the state comes up with more money. He says he’s looking to make cuts wherever he can.

The Haugan teachers say that shifting to charter schools is a way the system can save money: they cost less to run than regular schools because they’re not required to follow the union contract. They can pay union scale for teachers if they choose, but they’re not required to. According to the board’s own Web site, the average salary in the public schools is $62,965, and none of the existing charters comes close to paying that much. For example, at Mirta Ramirez Computer Science Charter School, a high school at Fullerton and Western operated by Aspira, the average teacher is paid $36,226. At a recent community hearing Aspira officials said teachers could expect to make no more than $45,000 a year. (Aspira’s executive director, Jose Rodriguez, didn’t return my calls.)

In the past few years Duncan and Daley have become big promoters of charter schools. They’ve already shut down around 20 regular schools and created 33 charters. Three more charters, including the one near Haugan, are scheduled to open in the fall, and the board wants to create several more next year.

Boosters say charter schools should be commended for pursuing teachers who aren’t so concerned with money. “What kind of teacher agrees to work longer hours for less money?” says board spokesman Cunningham. “It’s not someone who just needs the job. It’s someone who is very dedicated.”

Duncan concedes that CPS teachers are underpaid and says he’d like to pay them “significantly more.” But he points out that even though they work for less than their suburban counterparts, the city doesn’t have a teacher shortage and continues to draw bright young applicants.

Orr and other Haugan teachers counter that Duncan’s kidding himself if he thinks he can retain good teachers at lower salaries. “You might get young idealistic teachers,” Orr says, “but you won’t keep them.” According to a recent board study, only around four out of ten newly hired teachers stay for more than five years, and according to a recent article in Catalyst, that trend is accelerating. “The increase was even more dramatic for teachers leaving within two years of being hired,” writes Debra Williams. “Of the 2,475 teachers hired in 2001-02, 31 percent had left after a couple of years. Of those hired in 1996-97, only 18 percent were gone within two years.”

It’s not clear how many teachers leave because of the pay, but Duncan insists that having more charter schools won’t make the problem worse. “We give these schools dollar for dollar what all schools get, so it’s really not saving [the system] money,” he says. “But we allow them to decide how to spend it.”

The teachers at Haugan aren’t convinced. They worry that when their upper grades are moved to the new school Haugan will have so many fewer students it could be designated underutilized. That would give the board a pretext to close it down and convert it to one or two charter schools, which could replace the old teachers with new ones, though the old teachers could apply for jobs elsewhere in the system. “I think there’s a pattern here–get them cheap and move them on,” says Orr. “They treat teachers like they’re replaceable parts.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.