Budget Cuts Take Center Stage In Chicago Teacher Contract Fight | WBEZ
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Budget Cuts Take Center Stage In Chicago Teacher Contract Fight

Budget cuts over the summer that have reduced the number of teaching positions in Chicago schools will become a key issue as negotiations between the teachers union and the school district heat up.

Jackson Potter, Chicago Teachers Union staff coordinator, said Friday the cuts have led to more frustration among teachers and have exacerbated the already tense situation. He said union members will be out at schools talking to parents and handing out leaflets. 

“We are hearing of ballooning class sizes, diminished special education resources,” he said. “We are hearing about art and music classes being cut wholesale because principals are having to make these terrible decisions between core instruction and electives. We are at a real breaking point in the schools. And as a result, children are suffering so we are gearing up.”

Potter said these cuts underscore the need to push for things like standards on how big class sizes can be. Currently, the teachers' contract sets guidelines and CPS provides some money to help lower especially big classes. 

Potter said the union also will call on positions to be restored.

Meanwhile, Chicago Public School officials insist that the budget passed last month “protected classrooms.” The district said 1,000 teacher and other staff were laid off, but officials said they correlated with a reduced student population and were in line with what happens as things shift in the school district every year.

What’s more, CPS officials say they changed the way special education services were funded, but that principals should be making sure students are getting everything they need.

CPS CEO Forrest Claypool noted as he presented the budget that the school district faced a crisis this year and that “hard choices” had to be made to balance the budget. He and others say that teachers need to a part of shared sacrifice.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Claypool also are emphatic that a deal they put on the table in January is a “fair” one and that the union should take it. 

That deal, once called a serious offer by CTU President Karen Lewis, gave teachers raises to offset them paying 7 percent more of the employee contribution into the pension fund. 

But the big bargaining team--a group of about 40 members representing different union members--turned down the offer unanimously.

There seemed to be two big things that concerned them: the first being that not every teacher would end up breaking even. They also did not like a requirement that 2,000 CTU members take an early retirement provision. If 2,000 staff didn’t take the incentive, then the contract would reopen.

A third party mediator, called a fact-finder, later declared CPS’ deal a fair one. But the teachers union rejected the fact-finder report.

Union Attorney Robert Bloch says this week the union expects another offer from CPS. He says the two sides have talked since the fact-finder report was issued, but CTU does not have a clear idea of what CPS is currently offering. (For example, after reducing the teaching positions by 700, does CPS still insist that 2,000 staff take the early retirement provision.)

According to a 2011 state law, the rejection of the fact-finder report must happen before a strike is declared. 

That same law also calls for 75 percent of the entire membership of the union to authorize a strike. When lawmakers put this provision into place in 2011, they thought it would be an obstacle to a strike.

But the CTU easily overcame the hurdle in 2012 and again in December when 96 percent of members authorized a strike. Chicago Public Schools have submitted a challenge to the December vote to the Illinois Educational Labor Board, charging that the strike authorization vote can’t be taken before the fact-finder issues his report. The labor board does not meet again until mid-September.

However, the union is considering re-taking the strike authorization vote, rather than engaging in a legal battle over the December one.

Sarah Karp is an education reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.

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