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Strike Drumbeat Builds in Chicago As District Urges More Negotiations

Nearly 48 hours did little to move the Chicago Teachers' Union and the school district closer to reaching an agreement on a labor contract that expired at the end of June.

In nearly back-to-back press conferences Monday, the CTU and the Chicago district offered differing versions on the probability of a teachers' strike.

Karen Lewis, CTU's president, put the possibility at 100 percent on Monday, though she that it could be 95 or 85 percent tomorrow and that the union still needed to talk to its members.

Chicago schools' CEO Forrest Claypool, who said he was disappointed to hear Lewis' position, offered the opposite view.

"I am here to say that there is a choice," he said. 

Claypool said the deal offered to teachers on Jan. 29—and which an independent fact-finder recommended in an April 16 report—was fair.

Claypool said that both CPS and CTU leadership agreed to the Jan. 29 deal. And, he noted more than once that the elected union representatives had not voted on the Jan. 29 proposal before it was rejected by the union's Big Bargaining Team on Feb. 1

"What we've offered is an incredibly generous deal given the fact that the district is near insolvency," he said.  

Claypool said that CTU should work on reaching an agreement with the district so that the two parties could work together in Springfield, the state capital, to change what he said is a discriminatory and unfair funding system that disadvantages children in Chicago.

A fair union contract is part of a four-pronged approach to solving the district's financial crisis, he said. The other steps include better management and cost-cutting at CPS, assistance from the city of Chicago, and assistance and funding reform in Springfield.

In rejecting the fact-finder's report on Saturday, Lewis said that a countdown to a strike had started.

Still, that does not mean that a strike is a given. Both sides have a 30-day "cooling off" period, and Lewis said they will meet on Thursday. (Claypool later said he did not know that, but that CPS was open to meeting, including today, Monday.)  

Some union members wanted to go out on the street now, while others wanted to wait until September, according to Lewis.

Calling the fact-finder's recommendations "dead on arrival," Lewis highlighted the major reasons why the union rejected the findings. She said the union will settle a contract when: enforceable class size limits are included; when the contract is economically reasonable; when there is a real moratorium on new charter schools; a dedicated pension funding source; and a real commitment to stabilize schools. (Some of these are state issues.)

The union wants guarantees that there will not be economic layoffs. As for being economically reasonable, Lewis said teachers live and pay taxes in the city, and they could not accept a contract in which their standard of living would be lower at the end of the contract than it is now.

She also accused CPS of making financially unsound decisions, including planning to outsource positions that are currently held by district employees that would ultimately cost the district more.

The "draconian" cuts in pension and benefits, she said, were "illicit" attempts to cover up bad policies that teachers had no role in.

She called for renegotiating risky interest rate swaps that would restore about $500 million to schools, demanding that surplus TIF (Tax Increment Financing)—a financing mechanism used to support public projects—funds go toward schools and students. She also asked for CPS leaders to join the union in denouncing Gov. Bruce Rauner.

"CPS is searching for cash under rocks, seat cushions, and in their uncles' pants pockets," Lewis said of the district's current cash flow problem.

Despite the back and forth, Lewis said that the union and the school district are not far apart on their stance on the charter school moratorium. The district does not think that the Illinois Charter Commission should have the authority to override district decisions regarding charter schools, and it recently sued the panel over its move to allow three schools to continue operating after CPS moved to close those schools for poor academic performance.

The last time the teachers went on strike in 2012, they stayed out for about seven days. This time around, Lewis said she did not know how long teachers would stay away from schools if they walked out.

In answer to a reporter's question, Lewis said she does not want Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to play a bigger role in the negotiations.

She said the union was also seeking legislative remedy in Springfield, where it is backing measures that would improve the district's financial position, including one that would establish a progressive state income tax. 

Claypool also said that the district is supporting measures in the state capital that could increase funding for CPS.

But he noted that Gov. Rauner's education budget announced last week cut funding to Chicago, East St. Louis, and other poor districts, while increasing funding to wealthier districts. And Chicago remains the only district in the state that funds its teachers' pensions, meaning that dollars that could be spent in the classroom are spent on pension payments. Those payments are about $700 million this year alone, Claypool said.

That system has left CPS scrambling for cash. Without fair education funding, schools would be further harmed in the fall, with layoffs and cuts to programs, he said.

"That's the real issue," Claypool said. 

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