2 Chicago teachers say they are being fired for protesting

Two Chicago teachers say they expect to be fired Wednesday for protesting the construction of a scrap mill on Chicago’s heavily polluted Southeast Side. But Chicago Public Schools says the teachers flouted the district’s safety rules and repeatedly showed poor judgment and bias on the job.

The Chicago Board of Education is expected to weigh the fate of George Washington High School instructors Lauren Bianchi and Chuck Stark behind closed doors at Wednesday’s monthly board meeting. The teachers say they learned on Tuesday that they are being laid off.

“It is clear to me that this has nothing to do with any alleged violation of CPS policy or my teaching ability and qualifications. This is absolute retaliation for myself being an advocate and a supporter of my students advocating for himself, Bianchi, a social studies teacher, said Tuesday during a virtual news conference hosted by the Chicago Teachers Union.

“It’s clear that CPS should only want adults to support our students in being civically engaged when it doesn’t make the mayor look bad. So shame on CPS. I hope to be in the classroom where I belong this fall at George Washington High School,” she added.

In a statement Tuesday, CPS said an investigation revealed “several significant policy violations by teachers, including violation of safety policies regarding student transportation.” Bianchi called the allegations “outrageous” and said the decision by the board — whose members are appointed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot — will be made shortly before she and Stark, a biology teacher, are due to receive tenure.

“Chuck and I are both in this limbo where we’ve actually met all the requirements to get hired. CPS just hasn’t updated their system yet. And that’s why they’re doing this because if they waited until August, they would not be able to do this,” Bianchi said. Stark called the timing “fishy.”

The news comes a week after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sent a letter to Lightfoot accusing the city of violating the civil rights of its residents by encouraging polluting industries to move from white neighborhoods to black and Latino communities.

After months of protests, the Chicago Department of Public Health in February denied the final permit needed by Reserve Management Group to open a new scrap mill along the Calumet River at 116th Street. It was an abrupt change of course for Lightfoot’s team, which faced outcry from neighborhood activists, federal civil rights investigations and pressure from the Biden administration.

Ohio-based RMG bought and closed the General Iron Industries scrap yard on the affluent, predominantly white North Side. City officials working for Lightfoot and former Mayor Rahm Emanuel worked closely with RMG and General Iron Industries executives to clear regulatory hurdles for the Southeast Side operation, HUD found in its investigation.

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Stark was one of the activists who led a hunger strike to protest locating the facility near George Washington High School. “I can tell my students that there are people in their neighborhoods who have been fighting this battle for decades and winning,” Stark told the Tribune in February 2021. “They’re holding these big industries back from completely taking over.”

Now Bianchi and Stark say their honesty could cost them their jobs. They pushed back against the district’s claims that they asked students to take transportation not provided by CPS or offered incentives for students to participate in protest activities while not offering credit for other activities.

“I did not offer extra credit for any student to travel to any event,” Stark said. “Yet I am accused of it, and I have made that clear to those from CPS who have asked me about it, so I also make it clear here. I did not break any protocol in any of my instructions.”

Added Bianchi: “CPS is very clear that teachers are not allowed to travel (with) or transport students. Neither Chuck nor myself have ever done that, nor would I. It’s a basic safety precaution. But instead, teachers transported and students at Washington High School and other schools themselves to protest. Some of those protests were directly directed at the mayor.”

George Washington High School alumna Trinity Colon said she would be “absolutely heartbroken” if Stark and Bianchi lost their jobs. CTU Vice President Jackson Potter called the two teachers exemplary.

“In the midst of a teacher shortage, Mayor Lightfoot has called for layoffs,” Potter said. “And for what? To teach the truth, to demand a safe environment for students and staff, to speak truth to power, to empower students to act.”

tswartz@tribpub.com

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