Negotiators Seeking to Avert Another Chicago Teachers' Strike
Pensions, funding remain obstacles
Contract negotiations between the Chicago school district and its teachers' union were going down to the wire last week, with negotiators scheduled to huddle every day—including over the weekend and the Columbus Day holiday—to work out an agreement before Oct. 11, the date the union has set for a strike.
Failure to reach a deal could send teachers in the nation's third-largest district onto the streets for a second mass walkout in four years. A seven-day strike in 2012 was widely seen as a victory for the teachers' union and a blow to the then-nascent administration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
A lot has changed in four years. Karen Lewis still remains at the helm of the nearly 30,000 member Chicago Teachers Union, which represents teachers and paraprofessionals, but the district has a different CEO, Forrest Claypool, and Emanuel's influence has arguably waned. He was forced into an election run-off in April, and concerns over rising gun violence and the city's handling of the death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was shot by a white police officer, have further eroded his support, particularly in black and Latino neighborhoods.
A series of budget shortfalls, high-interest borrowing, and a state education funding formula that officials say shortchanges urban school systems have pushed the district close to financial insolvency. As recently as Sept. 26, Moody's Investors Service further downgraded the district's credit rating.
Though the rhetoric has amplified in recent weeks, the union and the district have not publicly changed their positions since February, when the union's "Big Bargaining Team" rejected what the CTU had initially termed a "serious" offer from the district. In April, a fact-finder recommended that the union accept a proposal that was similar to the one it had rejected months earlier. But the union rejected the fact-finder's report as well.
Claypool said last week that he would do everything in his power to avert a strike, which he asserted would endanger the academic gains the district has made.
In an interview with Education Week this past spring, Claypool said that the district could not continue to absorb the bulk of teachers' pension contributions. Nor, he said, could it improve its financial position without significant union concessions.
"What we can all agree on is that teachers deserve a raise, and we continue to negotiate a contract that is fair to teachers, taxpayers and Chicago's students," Emily Bittner, a district spokesperson, said last week. "We believe a strike can be averted and to make sure children's academic progress isn't interrupted, CPS will work tirelessly with the CTU at the bargaining table."
The district and the union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, are using the rejected offer as the framework for the last-minute negotiations.
That earlier four-year proposal to replace the contract that expired in June 2015 would have lasted through July 2019. It included an 8.75 percent average base salary increase over the contract's term, with additional built-in increases for years of experience and educational attainment. But at the same time, the district planned to end the long-standing practice of shouldering 7 percent of union members' pension contributions. Under the plan, teachers would also be required to pay an additional 1.5 percent toward their health-care insurance costs.
Also included in the proposal were changes to the district's teacher-evaluation system, including fewer classroom observations; preparation time for special education teachers to work with clinical teams; and the use of professional-development days for self-directed learning. It also promised no "economic" layoffs through 2019. (As recently as the week of Sept. 3 the district announced close to 240 teacher and staff layoffs as a result of lower-than-expected student enrollment, on top of nearly 1,000 layoffs in August.)
In addition, district officials made overtures to work on expanding community schools and a charter school cap, both of which are union priorities.
The CTU has been adamant that it will not acquiesce to an elimination of the pension pickup, arguing that cutting the benefit is akin to a 7 percent pay cut.
Moreover, the union has pushed back against the district's contention that it cannot afford the union's requests and faults district leaders for a litany of financial blunders that it says are responsible for the current financial problems.
To fund its requests, the union has advanced proposals that call for instituting or increasing a series of taxes, including on ride-sharing and hotels. It has also called on Emanuel to use about $100 million in surplus funds from a special taxing tool for schools. The union said its financial recommendations would raise $502 million for the district.
When the union voted down the district proposal in February, Lewis said one of the reasons was that it simply did not trust the district to keep its word.
Jim Vail, a Chicago elementary school teacher who was once on the union's "Big Bargaining Team," said the district is trying to force the teachers' hand by continuing to make cuts in schools. He predicted that the union will have similar levels of support in the community as it did in 2012.
"Who is going to be supporting the mayor and big business over teachers and schools getting their fair share?" he asked. "Who is going to believe that there is no money, with all of the money they give out to developers? ... The city is not broke. They have a lot of money for what they want. Public education is not on their agenda."
With the uncertainty over the strike, the district has published contingency plans for students and parents. While classes would be canceled, schools would be open, and students would be able to get free breakfast and lunches, take online classes, and participate in arts and crafts.
The district was also planning to work with community programs to help coordinate child-care options for parents.
Vol. 36, Issue 08, Page 6Published in Print: October 12, 2016, as Sides Seek to Avert Chicago Teachers' Strike