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Chicago Mayor Says ‘We Are Down To It’ As Strike Deadline Looms

The mayor wants counterproposals from the CTU — but neither side appears willing to budge over the key issues of class size and staffing.

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Lightfoot Strike

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools leaders called a press conference Monday morning about Chicago teacher contract talks. Lightfoot said she’s “definitely concerned” about the pace of talks ahead a strike deadline, accusing the union of lacking urgency. The CTU says the city also isn’t modifying its positions.

As the clock ticks toward an Oct. 17 Chicago teachers strike, Mayor Lori Lightfoot made clear Monday she’s sees the window of opportunity to avoid a strike closing.

“I am definitely concerned,” she said at a press conference Monday morning as she stood side-by-side with Schools CEO Janice Jackson and Chicago Board of Education President Miguel del Valle. ”We have a number of open issues. We have moved and met them on issue after issue. We can’t bargain against ourselves.”

In an attempt to shape the public narrative in their favor, Lightfoot and Chicago school officials argue the union is not bending on their demands and lacks a sense of urgency.

The Chicago Teachers Union says they too are waiting for proposals on many key issues and has called the city’s offers on their two big issues — staffing and class sizes — unacceptable. The union is not expected to come to an agreement on salary and benefits until after these issues are settled, despite demands from the mayor that CTU provide a counterproposal in that area.

This is the latest in a battle between a union that wants written assurances in the contract that working and learning conditions will improve, and city leaders who are trying not to be locked in and also retain power for themselves and principals to make decisions that affect their individual schools.

The union wants enforceable class size limits and promises baked into the contract of additional nurses, librarians, social workers, special education case managers and counselors.

At a press conference last week, a member of the bargaining team Lori Torres said she is waiting for the school district to talk about this issue. So far, the city has said it will agree in the contract to eventually stop privatizing clinicians. The school district currently only uses contracts out for nurses.

“Out of one side of their mouth they’re talking about what they want to do to help families, but they bring none of that to the bargaining table,” said Torres, who is a teacher at Monroe Elementary School.

Lightfoot and school district leaders say they intend to hire hundreds more social workers, nurses and special education case managers, but they don’t want to put guarantees in the teacher’s contract. They worry staffing shortages will hamper their ability to make these hires and fear they could face grievances from union members.

The city’s position has not changed on this since at least early September. Board President Miguel del Valle doubled down on this position at the press conference Monday morning.

“It [CPS’ offers] does not make promises CPS can not keep,” del Valle said, making clear he’s backing up the school district. “We will staff more nurses, more case managers and social workers. We will increase equity. We will improve conditions in all our neighborhood schools. But we need flexibility, we need creativity and we need partnership with CTU and the community.”

The union initially wanted set student-to-staff ratios in the contract, but proposed in early September hiring targets, a plan to create a pipeline of hires and some mechanism of enforcement.

The union also has been pushing to lower class size limits and make them enforceable.

The current contract has class size guidelines that call for 28 students or less in primary grades, 31 students or less in intermediate and upper grades. It also provides for a teaching assistant to be added to kindergarten, first and second grade classes when there are more than 32 students in a class.

The city is offering to provide a teacher assistant for third grade classes.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey balked at that offer last week. At the press conference where the union announced the strike date, Sharkey said the union doesn’t want a teaching assistant for overcrowded classes; they want classes with fewer students. He also pointed out that the guidelines call for kindergarten and primary grades to have 28 or fewer students in a class, yet they don’t get a teaching assistant until there are 32 students.

Lightfoot and Jackson also want a CTU counterproposal around pay and benefits.

Jackson repeated on Monday that she believes the compensation package being offered teachers is the best in “CTU history.” The school district also recently responded to the union’s demands that PSRPs, who are low-wage teacher assistants and office clerks, get a big bump in pay. In a proposal issued September 27, the school district offered them an average pay raise of 8% initially and then continued raises for cost of living, years of service and educational attainment.

The union, however, has not moved off its initial request for 5% pay raises for each of three years.

Sharkey has said that compensation will be among the last item hammered out. He said that Lightfoot and others know this.

A state law precludes the teachers union from striking over most issues outside of compensation, so the union won’t resolve compensation until it has agreements on other issues.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

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