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For Mayor Lightfoot, one battle is done, but the war is ahead

Potential 2023 mayoral challengers, such as former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, are already nipping at Lightfoot’s heels.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks to reporters during a press conference at City Hall, updating reporters on the current situation with the Chicago Teachers Union on Jan. 4.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks to reporters during a press conference at City Hall, updating reporters on the situation with the Chicago Teachers Union on Jan. 4.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

After some rough sledding, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has landed well. With a little help from her friends in Washington, D.C.

Lightfoot has been buffeted by dangers, toils and snares. Chicago suffers from high rates of violent crime. Its police department is fending off burgeoning retirements and plummeting morale. The city is buried in an avalanche of Omicron-infused COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.

And potential 2023 mayoral challengers, like former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, are already nipping at Lightfoot’s heels.

Then, this month, came another hostile standoff with the Chicago Teachers Union — the third such confrontation in Lightfoot’s 27 months in office.

On Jan. 4, CTU members voted to stop working in person, demanding a shift to remote learning until officials installed more safety measures in the Chicago Public Schools.

CPS officials responded by canceling classes citywide. Lightfoot, school officials and the city’s health department all assured there were enough measures in place to keep classrooms safe.

The teachers walked, mass disruption ensued, but Lightfoot and CPS held firm in their negotiations with the CTU.

The pandemic has shown that remote learning is deeply damaging to children’s health and well-being, Lightfoot argued. In-person learning was the only acceptable option.

“We will not relent,” she declared last Saturday at the height of the conflict.

By Monday morning, the crisis was entering its second week, and some predicted a long haul.

By Monday night, the CTU House of Delegates had voted to suspend its work stoppage, return to work on Tuesday and begin teaching in class the following day. On Wednesday 56% of the 25,000 union members voted to accept a deal.

The school district agreed to expand COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, and provide better masks to students and school staffs. The CTU wanted far more.

What happened? Lightfoot had friends such as President Joe Biden, who has repeatedly insisted that despite the pandemic, the best place for kids is in the classroom.

On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked about the Chicago schools’ shutdown.

“We have been very clear, publicly and privately, that we want to see schools open,” Psaki responded at a press conference. The White House had been in contact with Lightfoot, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the CTU, she said.

On Jan. 6, the Sun-Times’ Nader Issa reported that “an administration source said Biden’s education secretary, Miguel Cardona, held separate phone conversations with [Schools CEO] Martinez and Randi Weingarten, president of the CTU’s parent union.”

Cardona “underscored the importance of in-person learning,” the source told the Sun-Times.

The screws were applied. The CTU got the message.

Lightfoot won, but she didn’t crow. “The teachers in our system love their students. ...” she told reporters after the agreement was announced. “That’s not what this was about. We love our teachers, we continue to support our teachers.”

For some, the love is not returned. The agreement left many teachers, parents and students dissatisfied and frustrated.

And left CTU leaders with bitter words.

The negotiations demonstrated the school district’s “callous disregard” for school safety, CTU President Jesse Sharkey said.

“All of the power is concentrated in one person, and I think we’ve seen some of the worst effects of that,” Sharkey said. “We’re happy it’s over, we’re not happy we had to go through it in the first place.”

“This mayor is unfit to lead this city, and she is on a one-woman kamikaze mission to destroy our public schools,” CTU Vice President Stacey Davis Gates said.

This battle is done. The war is ahead.

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