Monday, September 10, 2012


chicago teachers strike
Public school teachers picket outside Amundsen High School in Chicago on the first day of a strike by the Chicago Teachers Union, Monday, Sept. 10, 2012. The school is one of more than 140 schools in the Chicago Public Schools' "Children First" contingency plan, which feeds and houses students for four hours during the strike.

CHICAGO (AP) -- For the first time in a quarter century, Chicago teachers walked out of the classroom Monday, taking a bitter contract dispute over evaluations and job security to the streets of the nation's third-largest city - and to a national audience - less than a week after most schools opened for fall.

The walkout forced hundreds of thousands of parents to scramble for a place to send idle children and created an unwelcome political distraction for Mayor Rahm Emanuel. In a year when labor unions have been losing ground nationwide, the implications were sure to extend far beyond Chicago, particularly for districts engaged in similar debates.

The two sides resumed negotiations Monday but failed to reach a settlement, meaning the strike will extend into at least a second day.

Chicago School Board President David Vitale said board and union negotiators did not even get around to bargaining on the two biggest issues, performance evaluations or recall rights for laid-off teachers. Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said that was because the district did not change its proposals.

"This is a long-term battle that everyone's going to watch," said Eric Hanuskek, a senior fellow in education at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. "Other teachers unions in the United States are wondering if they should follow suit."

The union had vowed to strike Monday if there was no agreement on a new contract, even though the district had offered a 16 percent raise over four years and the two sides had essentially agreed on a longer school day. With an average annual salary of $76,000, Chicago teachers are among the highest-paid in the nation, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality.

But negotiators were still divided on job security measures and a system for evaluating teachers that hinged in part on students' standardized test scores.

The strike in a district where the vast majority of students are poor and minority put Chicago at the epicenter of a struggle between big cities and teachers unions for control of schools.

Emanuel, who has sought major reforms while also confronting the district's $700 million budget shortfall, acknowledged his own fight with the union, even as he urged a quick resolution.

"Don't take it out on the kids of Chicago if you have a problem with me," he told reporters Monday.

As negotiators resumed talks, thousands of teachers and their supporters took over several downtown streets during the Monday evening rush. Police secured several blocks around district headquarters as the crowds marched and chanted.

The protesters planned to rally through the evening at an event that resembled a family street fair. Balloons, American flags and homemade signs hung above the crowd.

Teacher Kimberly Crawford said she was most concerned about issues such as class size and the lack of air conditioning.

"It's not just about the raise," she said. "I've worked without a raise for two years."

The strike quickly became part of the presidential campaign. Republican candidate Mitt Romney said teachers were turning their backs on students and Obama was siding with the striking teachers in his hometown.

Obama's top spokesman said the president has not taken sides but is urging both the sides to settle quickly.

Emanuel, who just agreed to take a larger role in fundraising for Obama's re-election, dismissed Romney's comments as "lip service."

But one labor expert said that a major strike unfolding in the shadow of the November election could only hurt a president who desperately needs the votes of workers, including teachers, in battleground states.

"I can't imagine this is good for the president and something he can afford to have go on for more than a week," said Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

For two decades, contract agreements have slowly eroded teachers' voices, Bruno said.

"But this signals to other collective bargaining units that the erosion of teachers' rights isn't inevitable. They (the union members) are telling them, `You don't have to roll over.'"

The union has done so in large part by making the most of one of the biggest sources of friction: teacher evaluations.

Lewis, the Chicago union president, suggested the city's proposal could put thousands of teachers' careers at risk because the evaluation system relies too heavily on standardized test scores and does not take into account such factors as poverty, violence and homelessness.

Teachers "have no control over those scores," said union coordinator John Kugler.

The union feared the evaluations could result in 6,000 teachers losing their jobs within two years. City officials disagreed and said the union has not explained how it reached that conclusion.

The strike involving more than 25,000 teachers meant no school for 350,000 students and raised the worries of parents who were concerned not just about their kids' education but their safety. Gang violence in some parts of the city has spiked in recent months.

"They're going to lose learning time," said Beatriz Fierro, whose daughter is in the fifth grade. "And if the whole afternoon they're going to be free, it's bad. Of course you're worried."

In response, Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said he would take officers off desk duty and deploy them to deal with any protests as well as the scores of students who might be roaming the streets.

The district staffed 144 schools with non-union workers and central office employees for half the day so students who are dependent on school-provided free meals would have a place to eat breakfast and lunch.

One after another, parents refused to leave their children at unfamiliar schools where they would be thrown together with kids and supervising adults they may never have met.

April Logan arrived at the Benjamin Mays Academy on the city's South Side with the intention on dropping her 5-year-old daughter off but then thought better of it.

"I don't understand this, my baby just got into school," she said, just before turning around and walking home with the child.

Some students expressed anger, blaming the district for interrupting their education.

"They're not hurting the teachers. They're hurting us," said Ta'Shara Edwards, a student at Robeson High School on the city's South Side. She said her mother made her come to class to do homework so she "wouldn't suck up her light bill."

However, many parents appeared sympathetic.

Sarah Allen, whose daughter is a seventh-grader, said she saw Emanuel at the Democratic National Convention "listening to Bill Clinton talk about compromise and cooperation."

But Emanuel seems to have "built a lifestyle around being a bully," she said. "And it's one thing to be a chief of staff and another to be a leader."

Emanuel, who has engaged in a public and often contentious battle with the union, is not personally negotiating, but he's monitoring the talks through aides.

Not long after his election, the mayor's office rescinded 4 percent raises for teachers. Then he asked the union to reopen its contract and accept 2 percent pay raises in exchange for lengthening the school day for students by 90 minutes, a request the union turned down.

Emanuel, who promised a longer school day during his campaign, attempted to go around the union by asking teachers at individual schools to waive the contract and add 90 minutes to the day. He halted the effort after being challenged by the union before the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board.

The district and union agreed in July on a deal to implement the longer school day, crafting a plan to hire back 477 teachers who had been laid off rather than pay regular teachers more to work longer hours. That raised hopes the contract dispute would be settled soon, but bargaining stalled on the other issues.

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Monday, September 03, 2012

Michael Clarke Duncan of ‘Green Mile’ fame dies at 54

 Michael Clarke Duncan dies
 Michael Clarke Duncan
Michael Clarke Duncan -- best known for his Oscar-nominated role as a death row inmate who possessed magical healing powers in the 1999 film "The Green Mile" -- died on Monday at the age of 54, according to his fiancee Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth.

Duncan had been in a Los Angeles hospital since July 13 following a heart attack and died on Monday morning after close to two months of treatment.

At 6-feet, 5-inches tall and approximately 300 pounds, Duncan was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for his role as gentle giant prisoner John Coffey in "The Green Mile," also starring Tom Hanks. Duncan won the role, in part, due to a recommendation by Bruce Willis, who he worked with on 1998's "Armageddon." Duncan went on to appear with Willis in three more films -- "Breakfast of Champions," "The Whole Nine Yards" and "Sin City."

Before he broke into acting, Duncan worked as a bodyguard for stars including Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Jamie Foxx, LL Cool J, and The Notorious B.I.G. -- whose 1997 death prompted him to quit that line of work.

Duncan's career spanned three decades and included roles in other television and film titles including "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," "Married with Children," "The Jamie Foxx Show," "Living Single," "Bulworth," "Arli$$," "A Night at the Roxbury," "Sister, Sister," "Planet of the Apes," "CSI: NY," "Talladega Nights," "Two and a Half Men," "Bones," and most recently "The Challenger," which is yet to be released.

Duncan was a prolific voice-over actor as well, lending his rumbling baritone to animated characters in "Kung Fu Panda," "King of the Hill," "Family Guy," "Green Lantern," and many others. The African American actor also played The Kingpin in 2003's "Daredevil," starring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner -- a notable achievement seeing as the character in the original comics, on which the film is based, was always depicted as being white.

"The Green Mile" was nominated for four Oscars in 2000 and won 15 other awards including best supporting actor trophies for Duncan from the Black Reel Awards and the Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards.

Born and raised on Chicago's South Side and brought up by a single mother, Duncan is said to have resisted temptations of drugs and alcohol, instead focusing on school and acting. He worked digging ditches after attending community college, according to his biography on, then quit his job and moved to Hollywood, launching his acting career while in his thirties. More than three years ago, Duncan is said to have become a vegetarian, and appeared in a video for animal rights organization PETA earlier this year.

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Saturday, September 01, 2012

As Hurricane Isaac pushes north, Gulf Coast slowly recovers

hurricane Issac flooded low lying parts of Louisiana
Angela Serpas cries as she sees her flooded home for the first time since Hurricane Isaac pushed a 10-foot storm surge into Braithwaite, La., Saturday, Sept. 1, 2012.
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — As the remnants of Hurricane Isaac pushed their way up the Mississippi valley on Saturday, spinning off severe thunderstorms and at least four tornadoes, some on the Gulf Coast were impatient with the pace of restoring power days after the storm dragged through the region.

While New Orleans streets were bustling again and workers were returning to offshore oil rigs, thousands of evacuees couldn't return home to flooded low-lying areas of Louisiana and more than 400,000 sweltering electricity customers in the state remained without power.

Meanwhile, the National Weather Service said two tornadoes touched down in rural areas of north-central Illinois and at least two touched down in rural southeast Missouri. There were no reports of damage in Illinois, and Missouri officials said some power lines caught on fire.

The weather service said the storm would bring some drought relief to parts of the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys. By midday Saturday, it had dumped up to 5 inches of rain in parts of Illinois and between 4 and 6 inches in parts of Missouri.

In Louisiana, the number without power was down from more than 900,000. However, in heavily populated Jefferson Parish near New Orleans, parish president John Young said Entergy Corp. was too slow in restoring electricity.

"I don't see boots on the ground," said Young, who complained that he has seen repair trucks sitting idle in a staging area and fielded calls from residents and business owners complaining about a lack of progress.

"We've restored about 45 percent of our customers in about a day and a half, Entergy spokesman Chanel Lagarde said Saturday. He added that crews have come in from 24 states. "In many situations, crews have driven all day and have worked their 16-hour day and have to rest for the day."

As of Saturday night, the company was reporting about 270,000 outages, most in Jefferson and Orleans parishes.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said he too was eager to get power back on. "Like everybody else, my patience is wearing thin," he said.

On Saturday afternoon, St. Tammany Parish officials ordered a mandatory evacuation of areas south of the Pearl River diversion canal, for fear a lock on a canal will fail. Parish authorities said the order could affect anywhere from several hundred to 2,000 residents in the rural area north of Slidell, which is across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates the lock. Parish spokeswoman Suzanne Parsons Stymiest said the parish got permission from the corps to relieve pressure on the structure by opening a valve that will allow a controlled flow of water through it.

Parts of coastal Plaquemines Parish, where thousands were evacuated, remained under water. The National Weather Service has said Isaac dumped anywhere from 10 to 20 inches of rain on south Louisiana and south Mississippi.

In the water-logged town of Lafitte, Mayor Tim Kerner was allowing property owners and residents to return and begin cleaning up.

Meanwhile, Gulf of Mexico oil platforms were being repopulated after Isaac forced shutdown of most Gulf oil production.

People stuck inside stuffy, powerless homes were comparatively lucky. The Louisiana governor's office said more than 4,000 were in state, local or Red Cross shelters as of Saturday morning and that doesn't count others who took refuge with friends, family or in hotels.

LaPlace resident Roshonda Girrad was staying in a state-run shelter in Alexandria, 200 miles from her home. She was waiting for the chest-deep waters in her neighborhood to recede.

"The showers are horrible. The food is horrible," Girrad said. "I'm not from around here. I don't know what's going on. We're in the dark."

Isaac dumped as much as 16 inches of rain in some spots, and about 500 people had to be rescued by boat or high-water vehicles.

In New Orleans, most of the downtown area and the French Quarter had power again Saturday. The annual Southern Decadence festival, a celebration of gay culture, was underway. And the Superdome, which sustained minor damage, hosted a Saturday night football game between Tulane and Rutgers.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney visited flood-ravaged communities on Friday, and President Barack Obama said he would arrive Monday — appearances this part of the country is all too familiar with after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the 2010 Gulf oil spill.

To the east, officials pumped and released water from a reservoir, easing the pressure behind an Isaac-stressed dam in Mississippi on the Louisiana border. The threat for the earthen dam on Lake Tangipahoa prompted evacuations in small towns and rural areas.

Crews intentionally breached a levee that was strained by Isaac's floodwaters in southeast Louisiana's Plaquemines Parish, which is outside the federal levee system. Parish President Billy Nungesser said the work was slow-going.

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