At this time back in 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union and the CPS Board of Education were already knee-deep in contentious contract negotiations. Both sides had taken their proposals public and were jockeying for parent support.
They’d gone through rounds of mediation and agreed to appoint an arbitrator. At the same time, the union was gauging teachers’ willingness to strike through surveys at schools, and had even conducted “practice strike votes” in preparation for what eventually took place later that fall.
Three years later and just two months before the contract expires, things finally began heating up on Thursday when the district said it wouldn’t offer a one-year extension. Though union leaders hadn’t indicated interest in an extension, they say it’s the first major formal move CPS has made so far.
“If the district really wants to get a resolution by next September, they have a funny way of showing it,” said CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey late Thursday afternoon.
In a letter to the union, interim CEO Jesse Ruiz said the district can’t afford to offer teachers the extension that — per the existing contract — would have to include a 3-percent raise. CPS, which for months has been ringing warning bells about its $1.1 billion projected budget deficit next year, says such a raise would cost about $105 million it doesn’t have.
“We were optimistic that solutions to the Board’s structural financial challenges would have been achieved by now and a well-deserved increase for CPS staff would have been possible,” Ruiz wrote in a letter addressed to CTU President Karen Lewis. “Regrettably that is not the case.”
In the letter, Ruiz describes ongoing contract negotiations as “productive.”
But that’s not how Sharkey describes them. He says the district’s bargaining team “refuses to even talk about” any CTU proposal with budgetary implications. “They’ve rejected lots and lots of stuff out of hand, either saying it’s too expensive or non- negotiable,” Sharkey said.
What’s more, the district has not formally responded to the lengthy set of proposals the CTU made last month. The ambitious list of demands ranges from reduced class sizes to asking CPS to sue banks involved in so-called “toxic swaps” that have added to financial woes. The union hasn’t yet made any proposals regarding wages.
Sharkey said the CTU has asked the district to bring in a third-party mediator, but that request has been rejected. “We’ll ask again before we spend the money on lawyers to go to court over it. But if that’s what it takes, that’s what we’ll do,” he said.
District and CTU negotiators have been meeting since last fall but sessions have only recently begun to touch on substantive issues. The city’s mayoral election and subsequent runoffs are partly to blame for the delay. Sharkey says the discussions so far have been “fairly abstract” as district negotiators refuse to go into specifics.
CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey said the district does not discuss contract negotiations in public.
In his letter, Ruiz also asked the union to help lobby the State Legislature for help paying off the district’s pension debt: “We hope to work with you on the most pressing fiscal issue facing CPS – the continued inequity in pension funding. CPS students and Chicago taxpayers continue to carry on the burden of this inequity, and it has come at a great cost.”
The district’s financial straits have already landed it on the state’s watch status. CPS ended Fiscal Year 2014 with just eight days of cash on hand, according to a recent state financial report . The gold standard, according to the Illinois State Board Education, is 180 days.
CPS officials have blamed pension repayments that grew from $200 million in FY 13 to $600 million in FY14 and $700 million now in FY15.