Emanuel alters eligibility rules for firefighters entrance exam

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel is standing behind a hiring preference for Chicago Public School graduates that has infuriated firefighters, despite surprise opposition from Chicago Teachers Union president and possible mayoral challenger Karen Lewis.

But that didn’t stop the mayor from taking a smaller step Thursday to appease the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2.

At the request of firefighters union president Tom Ryan, the city has altered eligibility rules for the Dec. 13-14 firefighters entrance exam that will be Chicago’s first in nearly a decade.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported this week that Ryan was upset about a requirement that 18-year-olds who will be eligible to take the exam for the first time must produce a high school diploma or GED.

That would have forced “hundreds, if not thousands” of 18-year-olds born after Sept. 1 to choose between dropping out of high school to get their GED or skipping the exam altogether and waiting years for the next one, Ryan said.

The dilemma was created by the city’s decision to lower the eligibility age to attract a broader pool of candidates. In the past, you had to be 19 to sit for the exam. The new test will be open to anyone who turns 18 before Dec. 31, 2014.

On Thursday, Ryan said the Emanuel administration has agreed to remedy the problem by allowing 18-year-old high school seniors to take the exam, so long as they agree to stay in school and get their high school diploma by June, 2015.

“There are still some kids who will be left out. But at least they won’t have to drop out to take the exam,” Ryan said.

Ryan said he’s still trying to convince the mayor to back off from the CPS hiring preference under threat of a union-funded court challenge.

“Make it fair for all Chicago taxpayers. It should not matter if you attended a public or private school or if you were home-schooled. If a preference is given, it should be given to all Chicagoans,” he said.

Emanuel’s office released a statement confirming the change.

“The mayor heard from the firefighters’ union on this matter and immediately agreed to address what was an unintended consequence of opening up the exam to more applicants by reducing the eligibility age,” the statement said.

The Dec. 13-14 firefighters entrance exam will be Chicago’s first since 2006.

If the test was administered more regularly, the 18-year-old quandry would not have mattered so much.

But Ryan has said, “For 30 years, I’ve been told they’re going to hold the exam more often. It hasn’t happened. There have been three exams in my 30 years on the job. We understand the exam is expensive.”

Earlier this week, Lewis wrote a full-page op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times denouncing the mayor’s hiring preference as a “meaningless stunt” that will have “zero impact” on raising the quality of public safety and do “nothing whatsoever” to raise CPS graduation rates.

“It does, however, foster religious and racial divisiveness and invites significant legal challenges that could cost taxpayers millions,” Lewis wrote.

The move was widely-viewed as an attempt by the fiery teachers union president to expand her political base in preparation for a campaign for mayor.

Emanuel has similarly political motives for standing behind the CPS hiring preference. He’s trying to reverse his plummeting support among African-American voters who helped put him in office.  

“Here is a way to bring inclusion into departments that have seen very little inclusion. It’s been that way for years. That’s why the federal court ordered the city to put 111 black firefighters on the force,”  Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, said this week.

“This is a way to show that anybody can apply. It also will reward families who stuck it out here in Chicago. [Emanuel] should be applauded and recognized for this being a good thing in our community.”

In a recent Chicago Sun-Times poll, only 8 percent of African-American voters surveyed said they would vote for Emanuel if the election were held today.

Persistent crime is not the only reason for the dismal showing. The mayor also has  alienated African-Americans by instigating Chicago’s first teachers strike in 25 years, closing 50 public schools, opening new charter schools and unveiling plans to build new schools and school additions, with the educational largesse heavily concentrated on the North Side.

That includes a $14 million addition to Walter Payton College Prep and a new, $60 million selective enrollment high school nearby named after President Barack Obama, whose 2011 endorsement of his former White House chief-of-staff sealed the deal with black voters.

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