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CPS chief backs the mayor's $13-an-hour minimum wage

The head of Chicago Public Schools is making a political statement supporting Mayor Rahm Emanuel, ahead of February’s municipal elections.

CPS CEO Barbara Bryd-Bennett told the Board of Education Wednesday that the district wants to move to a $13-per-hour minimum wage. The statement falls in line with other city agencies, like the Chicago Park District.

The budget implications of a $13-per-hour minimum wage for CPS workers and contract employees would still need to be worked out internally, CPS officials said.

Alderman Jason Ervin, of the 28th Ward, urged board members to consider the $15-an-hour wage he and other aldermen are pushing. The meeting was in Ervin’s ward, at Westinghouse College Prep, making it the first board meeting held in a community since 2004, when the board met at Orr Academy. It was also the first time in several years the board has met in the evening. Typically, board meetings start at 10 a.m. at CPS’s downtown headquarters.

CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey said they moved the meeting into a community and held it in the evening in order to give more people the opportunity to come. The district is also in the process of moving its offices to a new building downtown.

The meeting, which took place in Westinghouse’s auditorium, had a larger crowd than usual and frequent interruptions from audience members. One of the biggest gripes had to do with a recent Chicago Tribune investigation into CPS’s debt payments on risky interest rate swap deals. Those deals were entered into when now-Board President David Vitale was the district’s chief financial officer.

Tara Stamps, a teacher at Jenner Elementary in Old Town, spoke about a lack of funding for the school’s arts program, even though the school is designated as a fine arts school.

“How is it that you can say you want this kind of student, but you don’t want to make that kind of investment?” Stamps asked. “You’d rather not renegotiate these toxic deals and squander what could be hundreds of millions of dollars that could go into classrooms that could create well-rounded classrooms where children are appreciated and they learn and they thrive. But you don’t. You refuse. You will not arbitrate. You will not renegotiate. You will not do any of the initial steps to get some of that money back.”

The Chicago Teachers Union first sounded the alarm on the bank deals in 2011, but board members and CPS officials repeatedly dismissed the issue.

“Three years we’ve been coming here and being told that our facts are wrong, that we just don’t understand, and being dismissed by Mr. Vitale,” said Matthew Luskin, a CPS parent and organizer for the CTU. “A full week of Trib headlines tell a very different story.”

Luskin said he understands that CPS cannot just cancel the contracts with the banks, but he pushed the board to file for arbitration to renegotiate the contracts, and “take a stand.”

“They could call these banks out, blame them for the cuts and closings that have happened, instead of blaming retirees and parents and children who take up too many resources,” Luskin said. “They could announce that CPS won’t do business with these banks anymore if they refuse to renegotiate.”

McCaffrey with CPS said the district is monitoring the risks of its swap portfolio closely, “including the possibility of termination.” But he also said, by the district’s calculation, the deals saved more than $30 million in interest costs compared to the costs of fixed-rate bonds.

The debt payments and the minimum wage weren’t the only issues raised at the meeting. Two librarians came to speak about the reassignments and layoffs of full-time librarians.

“The loss of school librarians is especially alarming in CPS high schools where there are now only 38 high schools with librarians,” said Nora Wiltse, a school librarian at Coonley Elementary.

A student and a teacher from Kelly High School came to sound the alarm on cleanliness at their school since Aramark took over CPS’s janitorial services.

The Board also approved a new school rating policy.

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