Aug. 14--A group of Chicago firefighters has hired a lawyer in anticipation of a possible legal challenge to a city hiring policy that will give graduates of Chicago public high schools an advantage in an upcoming Fire Department exam.
The firefighters say the preferential hiring practice that will affect the December exam should be extended to all Chicago residents, including those who, like the children of many firefighters and city workers, attended private high schools. Their legal fight is funded by a $20,000 donation from Firefighters Union Local 2.
The situation points to the competing political constituencies Mayor Rahm Emanuel faces as he approaches his re-election bid in February. Emanuel doesn't want to anger firefighters, especially so soon after announcing a new contract with the union that was passed overwhelmingly by rank-and-file firefighters and the City Council. He also is loath to pick a fight with voters who choose private schools for their children, among them many of the city workers who are required to live in Chicago.
At the same time, the mayor needs to repair a relationship with African-American and Hispanic voters that has eroded since his first election thanks to factors including persistent violent crime and his push to close schools, a move that mostly affected minority neighborhoods.
Given the large minority enrollment at Chicago Public Schools, it makes political sense for Emanuel to stick up for giving preferential hiring treatment to CPS graduates. He did just that following a City Council meeting last month, saying he wants "the goal of CPS attendance of schools to be a credit so the diversity of the city, the strength of that diversity, is represented in the workforce of the city."
"I think we should make sure that kids that are graduating from CPS have a shot at working for the city, and get points for it, is consistent with what we want to do, because of the diversity of the city and the diverse talent in our city," Emanuel said.
The Emanuel administration instituted the hiring standards that favored CPS graduates for many municipal jobs in 2012. The Department of Human Resources was directed to "ensure that a minimum of 20 percent of the candidates referred for a position that has the CPS hiring consideration are CPS graduates."
The rule was met with applause by some aldermen and became an accepted element of city hiring until it became clear that the preference would be applied to the Chicago Fire Department entrance exam in December, the first such exam offered since 2006.
Chicago Fire Department Lt. Peter O'Sullivan said he and other firefighters hired an attorney because of the outcry inside the department and from Chicago residents who aren't firefighters but have now realized the children they sent to private high schools will have a tougher time making it on the hiring list.
Only about 9 percent of CPS students are white, according to the district. O'Sullivan dismissed any suggestion that opposition to the city policy is racially motivated.
"This has nothing to do with race," O'Sullivan said. "It has to do with fair and equitable treatment of all applicants."
O'Sullivan lives in the far Southwest Side Mount Greenwood neighborhood, an enclave of firefighters and other city workers. His son graduated from nearby St. Rita Catholic high school and plans to take the fire department test. "So now he's going to be at a disadvantage," O'Sullivan said.
Firefighter David Quintavalle's son and daughter attended Marist High School, a Catholic school in Mount Greenwood. He said it was a decision he made "because of my religious beliefs."
"I have nothing against the public schools. This was a decision I made based on my values and the values I wanted imparted to them, and I don't think they should be punished for that if they take the test," Quintavalle said.
He said he hopes the city changes the preference standards and that a lawsuit is not necessary.
Michelle Adamowski, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, said the city's Catholic high schools can help provide the diverse pool of applicants for city jobs sought by Emanuel.
According to Adamowski, 13 of Chicago's 20 Catholic high schools have a student population that is more than 50 percent minority, and about half of the total student population of Chicago Catholic high schools is minority.
On the far Northwest Side, another area packed with city workers, Ald. Mary O'Connor, 41st, said residents have been pulling her aside for weeks at block parties to complain about the city's preferential treatment for CPS graduates.
"Many of these people have made significant sacrifices to send their children to parochial schools, while their property taxes go to support CPS," O'Connor said. "I respect what the mayor is trying to do, but my position is that this is unfair."
O'Connor and Southwest Side aldermen Matthew O'Shea, 19th, and Marty Quinn, 13th, sent a letter this week to Soo Choi, commissioner of the City Department of Human Resources, asking to meet to find "middle ground."
Emanuel spokeswoman Shannon Breymaier declined to comment on a potential lawsuit by firefighters, but noted in an e-mail that "the hiring preference encourages Chicago Public School students to stay in school and get their diploma so they are prepared for college and a career."
And Ald. Howard Brookins, 21st, defended the hiring policy, saying it's right to give CPS students a leg up in applying for good city jobs. "The city is really trying to do something to give value to public education," Brookins said.
The fire department "is probably overwhelmingly Catholic and white," Brookins added, pointing to the public school preference as a "non-race based way" to help diversify the department.
Tribune reporter Hal Dardick contributed.
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