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Emanuel meets with Dyett hunger strikers after town hall budget session

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s town hall budget tour hadn’t even got under way Monday evening, when the chants began:

“We want a people’s budget!”

“Whose schools? Our schools!”

“Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!”

And so it went Monday night, as the mayor got an earful at Malcolm X College during the first of his three scheduled town hall meetings. The first was more of a general gripe session than what the mayor had planned: an opportunity for the public to provide ideas to help tackle the budget crisis.

Emanuel is dealing with a $30 billion pension headache, and he needs $754 million in new revenue to balance his 2016 budget and shore up police and fire pensions.

Joining Emanuel on Monday was his finance team, cabinet members and agency chiefs.

In the days leading up to Monday’s event, Emanuel had said the city’s challenges are such that he wants to make sure “everybody [who] has a set of ideas has a chance to contribute those ideas.” The mayor is set to present his budget to the City Council on Sept. 22.

But many of those in attendance wanted to talk about one thing only: The future of Dyett High School in Bronzeville.

Darletta Scruggs (left), Walter Gordon, Anne Carlson and Zerlina Smith, supporters of Dyett Hight School in Bronzeville, cheer others on at the town hall meeting Monday night. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times
Darletta Scruggs (left), Walter Gordon, Anne Carlson and Zerlina Smith, supporters of Dyett Hight School in Bronzeville, cheer others on at the town hall meeting Monday night. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

Many speakers repeatedly demanded that Emanuel meet face to face with the protesters, who want the facility reopened as an open-enrollment school. Some of the protesters are now in the 15th day of a hunger strike.

“Dyett! Dyett!” they chanted, drowning out the event moderator, Juan Salgado.

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One community activist, Frances Banks, glared at Emanuel and called him “a liar.”

“If those strikers die, the blood is on you and [Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest] Claypool!” Banks yelled into the microphone.

Emanuel, who mostly listened and let others talk, eventually agreed to meet the protesters — along with Claypool — at Malcolm X after Monday’s event. That meeting was not open to the media.

CPS CEO Forrest Claypool talks to a Dyett High School supporter Monday night at Malcolm X College. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times
CPS CEO Forrest Claypool talks to a Dyett High School supporter Monday night at Malcolm X College. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

Others grilled the mayor about the lack of transparency over the city’s tax-increment financing districts.

“The question I have for our mayor is: Where is our money?” one speaker said.

Emanuel began explaining that most of the money goes toward public schools, transportation, libraries and other entities, but he was drowned out by audience jeers.

“I have three teenagers at home,” Emanuel joked. “I’m really OK with this.”

Several speakers said the solution to generating more money for a cash-strapped city is higher taxes on the wealthy.

“You need to decide whether children with disabilities or paybacks to banks are your priority!” shouted speaker Kylene Young, a special education teacher at Pulaski International School of Chicago.

Tom Tresser, of the TIF Illumination Project, asks Mayor Rahm Emanuel “Where’s the money?” at the town hall meeting. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times
Tom Tresser, of the TIF Illumination Project, asks Mayor Rahm Emanuel “Where’s the money?” at the town hall meeting. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

Some accused the mayor of not caring about the plight of black youths in the city.

“Why, when I go through my neighborhood, don’t I see any black men working? And don’t tell me all our kids are not qualified,” one African-American speaker said. “I’m a descendant of slaves. You know, when we were slaves, we all could work. I’d like for all of us to work again.”

Talking about black employment, Emanuel touted the recently completed Red Line South rebuild, noting the “record numbers” of minorities involved in that project.

“That then became the established practice throughout all CTA work, and you’re exactly right, if we’re going to see the type of progress . . . then we need to get people back to work and also give them the skills,” Emanuel said.

At the end of Monday’s meeting, which lasted for about an hour and 40 minutes, Emanuel thanked the audience for coming and then went off to meet with the Dyett protesters.

Jitu Brown, one of the hunger strikers, said the meeting with Emanuel and Claypool lasted for about 35 minutes.

“It was a cordial meeting, but they made no commitments,” Brown said. “That’s not acceptable. So we’ll be on this hunger strike.”

Brown said the mayor’s office asked the protesters to end their hunger strike.

“What we got from Claypool is that he’s new, the board is new,” Brown said. “We hear that from every regime. We are not going to be pulled on that string again.”

In an emailed statement after the meeting with protesters and hunger strikers, Emanuel spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said: “Tonight, following his budget forum to hear ideas from residents for savings, reforms and efficiencies as the city works to balance the 2016 budget, Mayor Emanuel, CPS CEO Forrest Claypool, Board of Education Vice Chair Jesse Ruiz and other senior CPS representatives met with 16 demonstrators for more than 30 minutes regarding their concerns and ideas about the future of Dyett High School.

“The mayor appreciates there are strong feelings about Dyett, and he understands there is a desire for a quick resolution about its future, however what’s most important is the right decision,” the statement said. “CPS is engaged in a thorough review of Dyett, and while they are closer to a decision, they continue to weigh all the factors at play in an effort to achieve the best outcome possible — one that will ensure a strong Bronzeville and a strong future for our children.

Emanuel ended the town hall format in 2011 after his first budget sessions. Those meetings, like Monday’s, featured a lot of griping and some booing from angry residents.

Among ideas Emanuel is considering to boost revenues: a city garbage collection fee and a tax on e-cigarettes and non-cigarette tobacco products.

The remaining meetings are set for Wednesday, at South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 South Shore Drive, and Thursday, at Wright College, 4300 N. Narragansett. Each meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. Doors open at 5:30 p.m.