On Monday, July 13th, principals from across the city met in a high school auditorium to receive our budgets, most of which were slashed. Before giving us our budgets, CPS officials subjected principals to a one-hour presentation citing what in their words were the things that “forced” them to cut resources to students.
What ensued was the following series of one-sided political talking points straight from the Mayor’s press office as principals were forced to sit passively with no opportunity for questions or comments.
- “We have a budget deficit of more than $1 billion”
- “We have a broken state pension system”
- “Springfield lawmakers have failed to take action”
- “These things are forcing us to choose between making pension payments and making needed investments in the classroom.”
Each point had its own unique irrational false logic. Take the last point for example: CPS claiming their choice is between paying teachers salaries & benefits or improving classrooms is like the Chicago Bulls saying their choice is between paying player salaries or improving the team. Is there a more important expense toward improving a team than investing in its players? Is there a more important expense for improving a school system than investing in its teachers? The funds used on a salary and benefits package aimed at attracting and retaining skilled and competent teachers for our students is the most important classroom investment a school district can make. CPS’s “teacher compensation vs. classroom investments” conundrum is a false choice based on a misleading political talking point that had no place in a principals budget meeting.
Yet there we were, forced to sit and listen without comment. We’ve heard these talking points in past budget meetings but they were particularly insulting to any well-informed, self-respecting educator after bearing witness to a year of numerous budget related scandals and fiscal recklessness involving CPS and the Mayor’s Office. As I listened to each point, the contradictions became progressively more apparent and unbearable to endure without comment.
I raised my hand.
The CPS official looked my way but kept talking.
I kept my hand up for five minutes.
The official kept talking, reached the end of the presentation and began walking off stage.
I projected my voice from the back of the auditorium toward the stage, “I have a question.”
“We will not take questions here. We will break out in small groups in separate classrooms and you will be able to ask your question in your small group.”
The response was jarring; it stirred a memory of a 2013 CPS “hearing” on school closings. Hundreds of community members from Brenneman, Steward, Stockton, and Trumbull schools came to Truman College to voice their support for their schools remaining open. Instead CPS officials showed up with a PowerPoint presentation filled with talking points in support of school closings. When parents attempted to question the officials at this “hearing,” those parents were told they would not take questions or comments; they should save their questions for the small group “breakout” sessions where they could approach a facilitator one-on-one. In other words those officials were telling the stakeholders, “Everyone will hear us, but almost no one will hear you.” Community members refused to be split up to have their voices muffled, and the fiasco that ensued is documented in this video. It was not a “hearing.” It was an Orwellian attempt to dominate the messaging behind school closings by elevating the voices of public officials while marginalizing the voices of students, parents, and community members.
So there we were, several hundred principals being talked at and having our voices suppressed by CPS officials using the same approach they used against a group of students, parents and community members whose schools they intended to shut down.
Let me state that again for my principal colleagues: They treated all of us the way they treated communities whose schools they were shutting down.
I decided the critical questions that needed to be raised were not going to be marginalized to a one-on-one side conversation. They were presenting false and misleading information to all principals and it needed to be addressed with all principals present.
As the official walked toward the side of the stage, I began to ask my question.
“You’ve talked about Springfield and teacher pensions as the source of our budget problems, but at any point during this presentation do you plan to address CPS’s own wasteful spending and the reckless fiscal mismanagement that contributed to this budget crisis? Do you plan to address the purchase of $10 million dollars in office furniture for Central Offices after you closed 50 schools? Do you plan to address the $20 million expenditure on SUPES academy that is now under federal investigation? Do you plan to address the $17 million in pre-k money spent on unnecessary interest payments to three Rahm Emanuel campaign contributors? Do you plan to address the diversion of $55 million from public schools and parks on a private hotel and stadium? Do you plan to address the $100 to $200 million in financial penalties due to the toxic financial deals of board president David Vitale? Do you plan to address the $340 million spent on two custodial management firms that have failed to keep our schools clean? Do you plan to address how CPS repeatedly diverted money away from paying its debts toward wasteful spending like this?”
At that point, interim CEO Jesse Ruiz stood up, projected his voice, and with a somewhat stern and agitated tone stated “You can get your question addressed outside in the hall with me.”
Once again a CPS official was stating, “Everyone will hear us, but no one will hear you, and no one will hear our response to you.”
His standing up was a bold move, seemingly intended to either intimidate me or make other principals think twice about seconding my question.
“My question needs to be addressed right here with the principals in this room,” I replied.
“You are disrupting this meeting,” he said.
“And you are insulting the intelligence of everyone in this meeting,” I countered.
At that point, my network chief asked that I accept the CEO’s offer to step outside the meeting; so I did. As I left I told principals, “If anyone else is interested in his answer to the question, we’ll be right outside the door.” No principal took me up on my offer. When we got into the hallway we began to engage in what I can only describe as a testosterone driven back-and-forth aimed at little else except besting the other’s last comment.
I’m sure there is quite a bit I’ve left out due to the limitations of my own memory, but here is—to the best of that memory—how it went once we left the auditorium.
LaRaviere: That political propaganda had no place in a principal’s budget meeting.
Ruiz: If you’re so unhappy with CPS, why do you stay in it?
LaRaviere: To save it from people like you.
Ruiz: [I can’t remember his exact words, but it had something to do with the budget]
LaRaviere: Your mayor has diverted over 2 billion tax payer dollars to his campaign contributors.
Ruiz: He’s your mayor too.
At this point Ruiz launched into an extended critique of my involvement in the Chuy Garcia campaign.
LaRaviere: Please. Don’t lecture me on the ethics of principals being involved in election campaigns when you work for a mayor who repeatedly pulled CPS principals out of their buildings during work hours to stand on stage with him at his campaign events. Let’s get back to the point. Your mayor diverted 2 billion taxpayer dollars to his campaign contributors (both Daley and Emanuel).
Ruiz: And what is your source for that?
LaRaviere: Forbes Magazine
Ruiz: Well I’m sure they didn’t cite any evidence.
LaRaviere: They cited about a decade of receipts from City Hall’s vendor checkbook.
Ruiz: You’re nothing but a loud-mouthed principal.
“Did the CEO of CPS just resort to name-calling?” I thought. The exchange had already sunk low enough. I wasn’t about to sink to name calling—especially with my boss. I will tell my boss a truth he doesn’t want to hear and raise questions he doesn’t want to answer, but I’m not calling him names. It was after the “loud-mouthed principal” comment that I decided to end the exchange.
LaRaviere: It’s obvious I’m not going to get my question answered here so I’m going back in to listen to rest of this nonsense propaganda.
Ruiz: If you think it’s nonsense, why would you sit through it. I would not sit through nonsense.
LaRaviere: That’s because you’re too busy dishing it out.
[I walked away and returned to the auditorium]
We had left the auditorium because Ruiz invited me into the hallway with the understanding that he would address a question I posed about CPS’s reckless spending. However, the exchange we had outside that room quickly degenerated into a chest pounding stand-off, much of which had nothing to do with my question about CPS spending. I had allowed him to lure me into a verbal cockfight. The CEO of Chicago Pubic Schools and one of its most successful principals were going toe-to-toe like two overstimulated teenaged jocks—in public. It was certainly not my proudest moment, and I doubt it made Ruiz’s top ten list.
What I am proud of however is my decision to not to sit silently in that meeting as public officials slashed our budgets, then demonized teacher compensation and blamed state politicians for the state of finances in CPS; all while refusing to acknowledge their own reckless mismanagement of CPS resources.
There is a common and somewhat vulgar saying that embodies what I felt as CPS slashed school budgets and attempted to blame the state and teachers for its own irresponsible choices:
“Don’t p*ss on me and then try to tell me it’s raining.”
A Chicago Tribune editorial encapsulated it using less vulgar language in an article and accompany tweet: “Chicago faults Springfield for school mess? Like Bonnie Blaming Clyde.”
Yesterday—just two days after my exchange with Ruiz–Forest Claypool was selected by Rahm Emanuel as the new CEO of CPS; the fourth CEO we’ve had in the four years I’ve been principal. I do not expect anything to change; a new figurehead mouthing the same talking points from the mayor’s communications office; the same PowerPoint presentations filled with half-truths and false logic; the same “Listen to me, but don’t expect me to listen to you” approach to meeting with principals, students, and parents; the same attempts to place blame for CPS finances on others without acknowledging their own role in creating the mess we’re in; the same anti-student and anti-teacher budget slashing approach to public schools; and the same amazing self-respecting students, parents, teachers, principals and community members fighting it every step of the way.
Troy LaRaviere, CPS Principal
Andrzejewski, Adam (March 25, 2015). The Moral Bankruptcy of Chicago’s Elites: As the City Approaches Bankruptcy Chicago’s Elites Line their Pockets with Taxpayer Money. Forbes Magazine.
Chase, John; Coen, Jeff & Ruthhart, Bill (January 30, 2015). Rahm Emanuel Counts on Big Donors, with Many getting City Hall Benefits. Chicago Tribune.
Labor Beat (January 30, 2013). Fiasco – CPS School Closing Hearing 2013 (Video).
Chicago Tribune Editorial Board (July 2, 2015). CPS: Stop Blaming Springfield.
FitzPatrick, Lauren (March 25, 2014). CPS Wants to Spend $10 Million on Office Furniture. Chicago Sun-Times.
Karp, Sarah & Sanchez, Melissa (April 20, 2015). Civic Leaders Seek to Distance Themselves from SUPES Academy, Now a Target of Federal Probe. Chicago-Catalyst.
Sanchez, Melissa (March 17, 2015). Emanuel Preschool Expansion Facing Enrollment Woes. Chicago-Catalyst.
Joravsky, Ben (December 3, 2014). How Investment Bankers are Set to Profit from Rahm’s Preschool Plan. Chicago Reader.
Grotto, Jason & Gillers, Heather (November 7, 2014). Risky Bonds Prove Costly for Chicago Public Schools. Chicago Tribune.
FitzPatrick, Lauren & Spielman, Fran (March 19, 2015). CPS Principals Say Schools Remain “Filthy” under $340M Janitorial Contract. Chicago Sun-Times.