Both the School Board and the Chicago Teachers Union rejected an arbitrator’s proposed contract settlement Wednesday, starting the 30-day countdown to a possible teacher strike.

CPS was first, saying that the fact-finder’s report, which called for raises next year of 15 percent, would force the district to lay off 4,000 teachers in the first year alone. The total cost of the raises over four years–the recommended length of a contract–would reach $330 million, the board estimates.

“Quite simply, the board does not have the resources to accept it,” said David Vitale, president of the Board of Education. “It’s time for us to move beyond the fact-finder’s report, and into collective bargaining negotiations.”

Then came CTU, with what President Karen Lewis described as a “unanimous” decision to reject the settlement at a House of Delegates meeting. Moving forward, said CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey, “we have a salary demand…and we will moderate our salary demand based on whether there’s an acceptable package” of non-monetary offers.

The union has not formally issued a notice that it intends to strike, which the law requires at least 10 days ahead of such an action.

In his report, which fact-finder Edwin Benn immediately released to the media, Benn called the relationship between CTU and CPS “toxic.” He pointed out that teachers received hefty raises over the length of the just-expired contract, at a time when the economy was in free-fall and wages in general were stagnant. Yet he rejected the district’s call for merit pay and put the blame for the current stalemate on the district, writing that it “caused this problem by lengthening the school day and year to the extent it did when it was having serious budget problems,” and adding that the board couldn’t expect not to have to compensate teachers for additional work time.  

During a budget tele-town hall held Wednesday evening, Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley gave an overview of the budget and was asked if the district would be willing to scale back the longer, 7-hour day given its fiscal crisis. Cawley said no, saying district officials believe that the longer is the “right thing” to do for students.

At the board meeting, Vitale said CPS revenue is down this year and will decrease again next year. But he held out hope the sides would reach an agreement, noting that it has been 25 years since the last CTU strike.

“I believe both parties want this to happen. And where there is a will, there is a way,” he said.

He too appeared to rule out backing down on the longer school day. “We are committed, and have been committed from the beginning, to extending the time kids have in front of their teachers,” he said. Mayor Rahm Emanuel expressed similar sentiment in a statement late Wednesday, staying that “students need a full school day…everything else takes a back seat to this priority.”

Teachers rejected the report for their own reasons. On WTTW-Channel 11’s Chicago Tonight, the CTU’s Jackson Potter noted that job security and recall rights for veteran teachers–the rights of laid-off teachers to have first priority to be rehired for new jobs–are a major consideration.

Jeffrey Putnam, who teaches 7th and 8th grade at Lara Elementary, questioned the value of the fact-finding process. “A lot of this we could have done ourselves,” he said. “You don’t need to bring an outside person in to tell us we don’t agree. We have to go back to the bargaining table. That’s the next step.”

Joseph Dunlap, a 2nd-grade teacher at Tarkington Elementary, said that “if they can’t afford a longer school day, there shouldn’t be one.” He suggested, though, that CPS could compromise on non-financial issues like its requirement that teachers live in the city. Potter, too, suggested that teachers would make some concessions if the board gave way on non-monetary issues.  

Job security is “a demand that I don’t think would cost them much at all,” said CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey. “They rejected that summarily.”

Sharkey said it’s important to give veteran teachers priority over “new teachers off the street.”

CPS, however, has argued that giving principals discretion over who to hire in their buildings is of key importance.

The CPS board’s decision was preceded by public comment, mostly from teachers asking for concessions from the district.

But first to speak was Ald. Howard Brookins Jr. (21st Ward), chair of the City Council’s Black Caucus. Citing high unemployment in the African-American community, he said a teachers strike would impose a disproportionate burden in black neighborhoods.

“At the end of the day we have a community that is already stretched… and don’t know what they will do if school doesn’t start on time,” he said.

Miriam Rodriguez Ruiz, a teacher at Newberry Math and Science Academy, said that what’s good for teachers is good for students.

“I ask Mr. Brizard, members of the board, to walk in my shoes for one hour – not one day,” she said, citing 100- to 110-degree classroom temperatures caused by a lack of air conditioning.

“I don’t want to be the villain. Don’t separate me from the children of Chicago Public Schools,” she said. “If you empathize in any way, make it a priority to offer the teachers in Chicago Public Schools a fair contract.”

Charlotte Sanders, a citywide Head Start staffer, said teachers already sacrifice much of their own money providing for students. “I am trying to figure out how to pay Peter from Paul. But if I see a child in need, I’m buying gloves,” she said, drawing applause from the audience.

Kimberly Walls, a teacher at Fulton Elementary, accused CPS of playing games with its budget to avoid giving teachers a raise. “Yow you’re going to talk to Ms. Walls and say, ‘You can’t have a science lab,’ because you gave $3 million to the charter school down the street. … You have the money. The parents know it, the city knows it.”

CPS also contends that Benn, did not follow the law in taking to account teacher salaries in other cities and CPS’ available funds. However, Benn’s report notes that he took other large-district salaries into account and listed the districts he studied that were submitted for consideration by both sides. 

The report also rejected the board’s proposal for scrapping step and lane increases and instituting a performance pay program. He urged both sides to go back to the bargaining table and come to an agreement, at one point noting that Chicago schoolchildren are in danger of becoming victims of violence should a strike keep them out of school.

“You hope there is enough common ground on other issues they both care about that would allow them to come to a solution that is financially workable and allows progress on the school day,” said Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois. “It’s not encouraging when you see in the fact-finder’s report about how toxic the negotiating environment has been.”


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