BY HENRY REICHMAN
On Monday, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) rejected the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Board of Education’s latest contract offer “because it does not address the difficult conditions in the schools, the lack of services to our neediest students or address the long-term fiscal crisis that threatens to gut public education in the city. Moreover, educators do not believe the Board will honor its promises because it has lacked the will to join with parents, students, community and others in identifying existing revenue solutions that can stabilize the district.”
CTU President Karen Lewis said CTU members have given more than $2 billion back to the district over the last five years, including $500 million from the 4 percent raise that was rescinded in 2011; $500 million from layoffs over this period, including from the school closings; and $1.2 billion from the three- year partial pension holiday between 2011 to 2013.
“CPS has been living on borrowing for too long,” added CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey. “Now to turn around and blame teachers and staff for that debt while letting bankers off the hook is not acceptable. We think bankruptcy is a bluff, but if it isn’t, the mayor and his handpicked school board need to examine our commitments to progressive revenue.”
CPS uses this math to plug its budget hole:
- $200 million from the state for pensions
- $150 million from the state in a school aid formula change
- $170 million from a new local property tax levy for pensions
- $150 to $175 million from eliminating the teacher’s pension pickup and from increased healthcare costs.
“That’s about $700 million of the claimed $800 million deficit,” said Sharkey. “They want us to foot two chunks of that through property tax increases and classroom cuts. We need a big fix to school funding at the state level through progressive taxes on wealthy people. The Board cannot continue to balance its budget on teachers and students by cutting our compensation and eliminating vital education services such as special education.”
The next day in a response that the CTU called “an act of war,” the district announced plans to slash school budgets and stop paying the bulk of teachers’ pension contributions. District CEO Forrest Claypool said the CTU bargaining team’s vote to reject the offer was “disheartening” and left the district with no choice but to cut student-based funding. Claypool said he wanted the cuts to be implemented “as quickly as practicable,” a directive that left principals scrambling to determine how the cuts will affect their schools. While Claypool said the cuts to school budgets would amount to $100 million, CPS later issued materials saying it would cut $75 million from school budgets this year, and that those cuts would be mitigated by the availability of $41 million in federal grant money.
CTU President Lewis called the action was retaliatory and an attempt to coerce union members into signing on to a deal. “We are certain that everyone who works in our public schools is facing a clear and present danger,” Lewis said. The union scheduled a downtown rally Thursday afternoon to protest the district’s moves. “Due to their attack, we have no choice but to express our outrage at this latest act of war by rallying against CPS and the bankers who are siphoning off millions from our schools,” Lewis said.
The union said it will file a charge with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board over the district’s move to end the pension pickup. “The pension pickup has been paid to Chicago educators for more than 30 years since it first entered our contract,” CTU Vice President Sharkey said. “We consider it a legal obligation, and we consider eliminating it unilaterally to be breaking the law — and we will act accordingly if they do that.”
The pension pickup — where CPS pays 7 percentage points of the 9 percent pension contribution required of teachers and many staff members — has been a point of contention for many months. Under the district’s latest offer, CPS would reduce its share to 3.5 percentage points this year and phase the practice out by summer 2017. Last year, the district ended the pension pickup for its nonunion workers.
In December, CTU members voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, which would be the union’s second walkout in four years.
The CTU is also fighting Illinois Republican Governor Bruce Rauner’s proposal for “a Flint, Michigan-style emergency management for Chicago Public Schools.” Commenting on Rauner’s January 27 “state of the state” address, the CTU said:
Gov. Rauner’s vision is neither a turnaround nor a path forward to a more equitable economy. The platitudes about competitiveness, efficiency, and bureaucracy were all present in his address, but the real value drivers of substance were lacking. The real challenges facing Illinois, like those facing Chicago’s public schools, are tied to revenue, finance and racial justice. We heard nothing from the governor about the progressive revenue measures that are needed to address Illinois’ budget shortfalls—measures like a graduated income tax, a millionaires’ tax for education and an end to corporate subsidies to companies that slash jobs. Nor did the governor do anything to fight sweetheart bank deals like toxic interest rate swaps that drain hundreds of millions from state, city and Chicago Public Schools coffers. . . .
The governor’s education proposals are the clearest evidence of his continued support for the status quo. His proposal to spread the Chicago mayoral control model across the state is the same model that enabled Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his hand-picked Chicago Board of Education to go broke on purpose. This is also the school governance model that led to a decade of pension holidays, 15 years of unchecked charter school proliferation and a massive expansion of the district’s debt. As such, the governor’s model for cost control actually explodes costs and prevents parents from having a real voice in class size, curriculum and school governance. His proposals to “streamline bureaucracy” really mean things like enacting deep cuts to special education positions, which were handed down in CPS last week.
Chicago’s public schools need more counselors, psychologists, social workers and nurses, and not additional “school choice.” Students need their existing schools to be well-resourced and supported, not forced to compete under the continued threat of greater budget cuts. Educators and school staff need real freedom to teach and guide through massive reductions in standardized testing and changes to the flawed teacher evaluation system. Chicago needs an elected representative school board now that empowers parents and communities.
The CTU is in the vanguard of the fight for public education and should serve as a model for activist unionism and faculty engagement in higher education as well.