CPS hiring preference not the only thing irking firefighters

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Tom Ryan, President of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2 (Al Podgorski)

Chicago Sun Times – “A controversial hiring preference for Chicago Public School graduates is not the only thing that has angered union leaders about the December firefighters entrance exam that will be the city’s first in nearly a decade.

So has a requirement that, although 18-year-olds are now permitted to take the exam, they must first produce a high school diploma or GED.

Tom Ryan, president of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, said that will literally force “hundreds, if not thousands” of 18-year-old high school seniors born after Sept. 1 to make a choice that could hamstring their career development. 

The problem 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.

“They’ll either have to quit school and get their GED before the exam or miss the chance to take this test and wait years for the next one,” Ryan said.

“You’re making 18-year-old kids make a very difficult decision, and it’s not needed. I understand what they’re trying to do [to expand the pool of applicants], but you’re actually shrinking your pool, rather than expanding it.”

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

If the test was administered more regularly, 18-year-olds who won’t graduate until June 2015 could take a pass knowing they would soon get another shot.

But Ryan 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. But this is the first time anyone can remember that, in order to take the exam, you need a high school diploma or GED. Let `em take the exam and, upon hire, produce the diploma or GED.”

Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford could not be reached for comment about Ryan’s complaints.

Other City Hall sources said a change is in the works that could allow 18-year-olds to take the exam without a diploma, so long as they graduate by June 2015.

“That would take care of people, so they don’t have to drop out of school,” said a source familiar with the policy change under consideration.

Last year, the Chicago Fire Department spent $43 million on overtime–more than double the amount authorized — because of “legal issues” tied to past discrimination lawsuits that prevented the department from hiring firefighters.

Budget Director Alex Holt has said she expects the Fire Department to exceed its overtime budget again this year — after spending $28.3 million through May — because of “delays in getting classes in” to the fire academy.

“We have about 350 more firefighters and paramedics coming out of the academy before the end of the year, so we expect to see the overtime drop significantly,” Holt has said.

Earlier this week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel stood behind the CPS hiring preference that has infuriated firefighters, despite surprise opposition from Chicago Teachers Union president and possible mayoral challenger Karen Lewis.

“I want to make sure the doors of opportunity are open to all — that everybody feels they have a fair shot. That did not exist before,” the mayor said.

In a full-page op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times, Lewis denounced the mayor’s plan 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.

Ryan recently negotiated a new contract with Emanuel that includes none of the cost-saving concessions the mayor was seeking. But Ryan is adamantly opposed to the hiring preference that has caused an “outcry” among the rank-and-file, many of whom are second- and third-generation firefighters and would like their own children to have the same chance.

Some members whose children attend parochial school are so incensed about the hiring preference, they’re threatening to file a lawsuit to stop the city from applying it to the firefighters exam.

“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,” Ryan said.”

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