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Teachers union vs. school board: Chicago’s contract debate

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Karen Lewis (right) leads the charge at the Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2012. It was the first strike in 25 years and current contract negotiations may cause conflict again. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Karen Lewis (right) leads the charge at the Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2012. It was the first strike in 25 years and current contract negotiations may cause conflict again. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Opening shots were fired between the cash-strapped Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) last week after the school board declined to extend its contract with the teachers, instead giving them an “insulting” initial offer of a seven percent decrease in take-home pay.

CPS, the third-largest school system in the country, said it simply could not afford the $105 million price tag that would have accompanied a three percent increase in teacher’s pay.

In a press release, CTU President Karen Lewis said, “CPS can repeat the mantra of a $1 billion budget deficit until it’s blue in the face, but the fact of the matter is that this is a financial mess of its own creation. If the district is indeed broke, it’s broke on purpose, and our members and their primary interests—their students—are the ones who are suffering the consequences.”

CPS is facing significant financial headaches with a budget deficit and a $600 million pension payment looming. Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has even said the district may have to consider bankruptcy. Such an action would give the district a lot more power to renegotiate deals with the union regarding salaries and pensions should a judge decide the district cannot afford to pay what it is charged with.

In 2012, Lewis reignited the national debate over the future of education by leading her members on strike for the first time in 25 years, taking on Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his hand-picked school board in the process.

Many were sympathetic of the teachers’ grievances, amongst them the demand for an increase in compensation to go along with a longer school day. While initially demanding a 30 percent increase, they eventually settled at 16 percent over four years.

Despite CPS offering a pay cut, records from the Illinois School Report Card database indicated that CPS teachers make the second-highest average salary of the 10 largest school districts in the state.

(Max Kleiner / The DePaulia)

Ten largest school districts in Illinois and their average teacher salary, spending per pupil and college readiness rate. (Max Kleiner / The DePaulia)

According to the database, Chicago teachers made an average of $71,739 in 2014, higher than the state average of $62,435. Only Naperville Community Unit School District 203 exceeded CPS in average teacher salary and per pupil spending. Yet, CPS ranked ninth out of 10, only beating Waukegan Community Unit District 60, in the percentage of students who are deemed college ready.

Only 27 percent of students were considered ready for college coursework despite an 81 percent four year graduation rate.  This percentage was determined by the amount of students who achieved a 21 or higher on the ACT exam, which is administered to high school juniors every April. While factors such as socioeconomics come into play, many question the effectiveness of CPS teachers in the classroom as they get ready to negotiate a new contract.

DePaul professor William Sander said teachers have an impact on achievement, but socioeconomic factors loom much larger.

“The idea that Chicago scores would be lower due to teacher salaries is probably not the case. Family background is a key factor,” Sander said. “I mean most of the kids come from a low income background in CPS. So that’s the big difference between Chicago and the suburbs.

People coming from extremely poor backgrounds have a large negative effect on educational outcomes.”

Of the nearly 400,000 students in the CPS system, more than 85 percent are low income, according to the report card. While per pupil spending is higher than some other districts with higher achievement, Sander said the effectiveness depends on how the money is spent.

“There’s two schools of thought. In economics, a lot of the studies tended to show not zero effects, but not large effects on achievement,” Sander said. “But it all depends on how the money’s used. So in some cases, like if you have a lot of at-risk kids in first and second grade, then lowering the class size makes sense.”

This is a criticism that Lewis and the union have repeatedly leveled at CPS administration, saying that resources are taken away from neighborhood schools on the South and West sides in favor of the wealthier North Side. In Lincoln Park, the allocation of $20 million for a school annex became a hot button issue in the 43rd Ward aldermanic race as some argued it was unnecessary in wake of nearly 50 school closings in mostly poor neighborhoods in 2012.

In addition to grappling with the enormous budget deficit, CPS is facing a crisis of confidence as CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett is on leave after it was revealed she was the target of an investigation into a no-bid contract the district gave out to a former employer of hers.

“As for this figure of $100 million that is cited for the potential overall cost of an increase, let’s consider how much of that could have been saved if it weren’t for the board’s own incompetence,” Lewis said. “$20 million for the SUPES contract that has them mired in scandal, plus another $22 million for a janitorial contact that has them over budget—a contract, by the way, that is literally and figuratively a mess in our schools. That’s $42 million that could have been saved, just for starters,” she said. “A closer examination of board contracts would no doubt reveal even more potential savings and resources that could go back into our schools.”

The teachers and board have started negotiations on a new contract. Among the union’s demands are smaller class sizes, a freeze on charter schools and school closings, and more resources from tax-increment financing districts for resources in the classroom.

“With rising housing, health care and food costs, we can’t afford such a big hit in our paychecks,” said CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey. “On top of that they expect us to pay more for health insurance and work longer hours in classrooms that are overcrowded and with fewer resources.  That will not happen.”

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Teachers union vs. school board: Chicago’s contract debate