CPS CEO doesn’t expect major dustup with CTU over lifting mask mandate

Pedro Martinez also said in a speech Wednesday that he wants to “reimagine” CPS, which has seen plummeting enrollment in recent years and is at a “crossroads.”

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CPS CEO Pedro Martinez.

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez

Brian Rich / Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez said he doesn’t expect a major dustup with the Chicago Teachers Union —or any canceled classes — over the district’s decision to break its agreement with the union by dropping its mask mandate.

Appearing Wednesday at the Economic Club of Chicago, Martinez reiterated the move came down to preempting a court challenge that he believed would have destroyed CPS’ autonomy in COVID-19 mitigation efforts moving forward. He said the district will be quick to reinstate universal masks in the case of another surge.

“This is the first time in two years that I’ve seen the national, state and local level all in complete alignment. We’ve never seen cases this low, we’ve never seen positivity rates this low,” he told the lunch crowd. “I’m not concerned about ... what may happen in terms of any interruptions.”

Martinez said he “respects CTU leadership” and consulted with them before making the decision — though CTU officials have said Martinez never explicitly told them he would make this move so soon and have since filed an unfair labor practice charge against the district.

Looking at the city’s broader political landscape and how CPS falls into the mix, Martinez said he faced critics from the right in his San Antonio district and now finds himself being pushed too far to the left in Chicago, saying “what I’ve seen here is that we’ve allowed organizations frankly to gain so much power.

“And you see how it’s playing out in the state legislature, you see it sometimes, sorry, how it plays out in the media. I don’t mind being scrutinized, hey you signed up for this. I don’t mind being accountable,” he said. “But we have to really pay attention, as all of us living in this city, this is my city, I grew up here, we have to make sure we see the bigger picture of what happens when we let organizations take us too far to one side or the other.

“I’m saying this, everybody, coming from Texas, which is cray cray when it comes to politics, where I was getting pushed on the right. And now I feel like I’m getting pushed on the left. And what I will tell you is the majority of our families are in the middle. And they don’t like drama. And so what they’re going to ask of you, and I’ll say this on behalf of them, let’s stop the drama.”

Stacy Davis Gates, vice president of the ultra-progressive CTU, responded Wednesday by calling on Martinez to “concentrate on the health and safety of the students, families and educators who comprise CPS and less on ideology.

“Our students need love, nurturing and protection, our educators need a leader who doesn’t renege on agreements they made sacrifices for to obtain, and our families need to know they have more agency in school policy than a COVID-19-denying opportunist from downstate Illinois,” she said, referring to Republican attorney general candidate Tom DeVore, who led the push against schools’ pandemic mitigations.

Looking ahead at his plans for the district as he nears six months in the CEO’s office, Martinez said CPS is “at a crossroads,” with plummeting enrollment over the past decade at the same time that graduation rates and other success measures have skyrocketed. Now that kids are back in classrooms, the focus is on stabilizing schools and showering them with resources to help address students’ social and emotional needs, he said.

“We have the opportunity to reimagine education in our third-largest city in the country,” Martinez said. “I want you to see the wonderful potential that our students have that I get to see on a daily basis. ... Our economic future as a city is intertwined with the future of our schools.”

“In the next few months you’ll be seeing a blueprint around how do we reimagine services for our special education [students]? How do we reimagine our career/tech programs to where the future is going? ... It’s also a time to double down on early literacy.”

Martinez asked organizations to support CPS’ efforts, whether through financial support, or hospitals expanding mental health services or companies providing professional pathways for students.

“Tell me you’re not going to do whatever it takes to get [your kids] tutors. If they want to be a lawyer, you’re going to call your lawyer friends to get them access to the law firms. If they want to be a doctor, you’ll get them involved in hospitals,” Martinez said.

“My families who live in poverty, they want to — they don’t have the means. They don’t have the access. And so that’s what all of us, I want us to work together. How do we create a system, and we have a chance to do it here, how do we create a system that is inclusive, that says under our watch no child is going to fall between the cracks? Folks, we have the resources.”

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