Teachers union members and community activists gather for an education rally outside the Thompson Center on March 26, 2015. Credit: Photo by Melissa Sanchez

The Chicago Teachers Union presented an ambitious set of proposals on Thursday during contract negotiations with the Chicago Board of Education, including smaller class sizes; more prep time for teachers; and ensuring all schools have counselors, nurses, art teachers and even truancy officers.

But many of the proposals are not actually negotiable in a labor contract and represent more of ideological asks, such as suing banks involved in so-called “toxic swaps,” putting a moratorium on the opening of new charter schools, and spending district money to train new teachers on the Grow Your Own program instead of Teach for America.

At an education rally late Thursday outside the Thompson Center, CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey acknowledged that many of the demands were political in nature.

“Today we are highlighting some of the more of the public demands […] which are intended for people to look at politically, in the context of education as a social movement,” he said. “And yeah, it is a more political demand.”

Sharkey said the union has also presented other, more nuts-and-bolts type proposals, although they have not yet made any regarding wages.

In a statement, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said the district is “committed to providing our students with the education needed for success, and we look forward to productive conversations with CTU regarding the contract.”

However, she also highlighted the district’s bleak financial outlook: “CPS faces enormous financial challenges and a deficit of more than $1 billion, and will need help to keep these challenges from impacting the education of our students.”

Contract negotiations have quietly been underway for several months, although up until now they’ve been focused on setting the ground rules, schedule and other formalities. This year, the CTU increased the size of its already big bargaining team of about 40  educators and paraprofessionals during 2012 negotiations to about 50 this year. Sharkey remarked that the district’s negotiating team has more educators and former principals – “people who know their way around a school” – than in the previous combative negotiations, which ended in a historic eight-day strike.

The new contract, which would cover about 25,000 employees, expires on June 30. Sharkey said the mayoral elections have had the effect of slowing down negotiations. Mayor Rahm Emanuel faces CTU-backed Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in runoffs on April 7.

“It slowed it down, frankly, because the team for the board they don’t know if they’re going to be the team in two weeks,” Sharkey said, adding that “this is going to be a hard negotiation no matter who [wins].”

Sharkey said the district still has the option of offering a one-year extension that would include 3-percent raises, but he didn’t sound interested in that possibility. “We haven’t even seen the district make a representation that they’ve got the money to do it. The offer of the extension requires that they certify they can pay the extension,” he said. “And what good is a raise if they turn around and lay off 3,000 teachers?”

Asked whether he believed the district and union were on track to reach an agreement before June 30, Sharkey shook his head. “Honestly, no. I feel like the district has been slow-walking on the negotiations; I don’t know how much of it is because they have bad news they don’t want to tell us before the vote.”

Melissa Sanchez is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at msanchez@chicagoreporter.com and follow her on Twitter at @msanchezMIA.

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