Jul 25, 2022 - News

Green fight at North Side school

Photo collage of kids and teachers in nature.

Pete Leki, who directed the ecology program at Waters Elementary School for 25 years, leading nature programs for students. Courtesy of Alicia Mayorca

Last week, Waters Elementary principal Peter Rutkowski announced the departure of Pete Leki, the man who led the school's famous ecology program for 30 years.

  • Leki says he was "fired" and suspects it could be for his activism around his program. Many community members are furious.

Why it matters: Leki transformed the North Center school's asphalt yard into an ecological classroom that inspired generations of students and became a model for other schools.

  • It includes community and teaching gardens, composting, recycling, and a water diversion area that, by one class estimate, sequesters 120,000 gallons of floodwater a year.

Context: For years, Leki's position as director of the Waters ecology program was privately funded by community group WatersToday and was not an official Chicago Public Schools staff job.

  • After Rutkowski proposed new terms, Leki says he "accepted the 30% wage cut and agreed to become a CPS 'miscellaneous employee.'"
  • Still, Leki tells Axios he learned in Rutkowski's Wednesday announcement that he was "fired," and says he was "sickened" by it.

The other side: According to CPS officials, Leki declined the school’s offer to become a CPS employee and take a 23% pay cut.

Between the lines: Leki has led many protests to save aspects of the garden, which he communicates through an email group.

  • In his announcement, Rutkowski called these a "major barrier in coming to an arrangement."
  • So Leki says he interprets his "firing" as a possible "reprisal for my public activism."

What's next: Rutkowski said in his announcement that some aspects of the ecology program will continue in the coming school year.

  • But Leki supporters, who have submitted dozens of letters and gathered nearly 500 petition signatures, say they are "heartbroken" and "angry" and still have many questions for CPS.

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