Two Chicago teachers say they expect to be fired Wednesday because they protested construction of a scrap shredder in Chicago’s heavily polluted Southeast Side. But Chicago Public Schools says the teachers disregarded district 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 Tuesday they are up for dismissal.
“It’s clear to me that this has nothing to do with any alleged violation of CPS policy or my teaching ability and qualifications. This is absolutely retaliation for myself being an advocate and a supporter of my students advocating for themselves,” Bianchi, a social studies teacher, said Tuesday during a virtual news conference co-hosted by the Chicago Teachers Union.
“Clearly CPS must only want adults to support our students to be 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 uncovered “several significant policy violations by the teachers, including violation of safety policies concerning the transportation of students.” Bianchi called the claims “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 myself are both in this limbo where we’ve actually completed all of the requirements to achieve tenure. CPS just hasn’t updated their system yet. And that’s why they’re doing this because if they waited until August, they wouldn’t 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 rejected the last permit Reserve Management Group needed to open a new scrap shredder along the Calumet River at 116th Street. It was an abrupt change of course for Lightfoot’s team, who faced outcry from neighborhood activists, federal civil rights investigations and pressure from the Biden administration.
RMG, which is based in Ohio, purchased and closed the General Iron Industries scrap yard on the wealthy, 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 waged a hunger strike to protest putting the facility near George Washington High School. “I can tell my students there are people in their neighborhood who have been fighting this fight for decades and winning,” Stark told the Tribune in February 2021. “They are holding back these big industries from totally taking over.”
Now Bianchi and Stark say their candor may cost them their jobs. They pushed back against district claims they directed students to take transportation that was not procured by CPS or offered incentives for students to attend protest activities while not offering credit for other activities.
“I did not offer extra credit for any students to travel to any event,” Stark said. “Yet I am being accused of that, and I have made that clear to those from CPS that have asked me about it, so I’m making it clear here as well. I did not break any protocol in any of my instruction.”
Added Bianchi: “CPS is very clear that teachers are not to travel (with) or transport students. Neither Chuck nor myself have ever done that, nor would I. That’s a basic safety precaution. But instead, teachers and students at Washington High School and other schools transported themselves to protest. Some of these protests were directly targeting 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 them to be terminated,” Potter said. “And for what? For teaching the truth, for demanding a safe environment for students and staff, for speaking truth to power, for empowering students to take action.”