CHICAGO – Teachers in the nation’s third-largest school district pulled back from a threatened strike after a tentative last-minute contract agreement that Chicago officials acknowledged Tuesday may amount to a temporary fix and parents worried would fall apart.
“It wasn’t easy, as you all know,” Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said after Monday’s late-night agreement, which now goes to the union’s House of Delegates and all 28,000 members for a final vote. Vice-President Jesse Sharkey said Tuesday that he’s “confident that it’ll pass” because it has wins for students and for school workers.
But even as Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who fought bitterly with Lewis before and during the 2012 teachers’ strike, praised the union and the Chicago Public Schools in a speech in which he introduced his 2017 budget proposal, it still isn’t clear how the financially strapped city will pay for the four-year deal.
The proposal includes a 2 per cent cost-of-living increase in the third year and 2.5 per cent one in the fourth year. It doesn’t require current teachers to pay more toward their pensions — a change CPS had been seeking and the union rejected earlier this year — but future hires will have to pick up that additional pension cost.
A key provision is an agreement by the city to divert about $88 million from a $175 million surplus of the city’s at-times controversial special taxing districts — known as tax increment financing, or TIF, funds — to the schools. That figure is less than the $200 million in additional spending the union had sought.
“Obviously when you take that TIF surplus, that’s not a sustainable way of funding the schools,” said Alderman Pat Dowell, who represents South Side neighbourhoods. “The money probably will not available next year so the (union and the school district) are going to have to look for more permanent financing, which is probably at the state level.”
Alderman Patrick O’Connor agreed with Dowell, but said the city is in the same position it is in every year when it tries to secure state funding. Illinois is locked in a budget stalemate, meaning funds that are normally available have been slow to come or temporarily cut off.
“Every year we rely on (the state) to give us a certain amount of money and every year there is drama … and we’re never quite sure whether it is going to come or not,” said O’Connor, who is Emanuel’s City Council floor leader and represents a West Side district.
One casualty due to the TIF money diversion, which required several aldermen to sacrifice projects in their wards that would have been paid for with those funds, was a $60 million selective-enrolment high school to be named after President Barack Obama. Alderman Walter Burnett said he agreed to sacrifice it indefinitely; the proposed school and its name stirred controversy when Emanuel announced it in 2015 due to its location on the near North Side — far from where Obama built his political career on the South Side.
The tentative agreement also addresses class sizes in the nearly 400,000-student district, assigning an assistant to any younger-grade classes with more than 32 students.
Parents and others who dropped off children Tuesday remembered the teachers’ strike of four years ago and worried that, somehow, the current agreement would fall through.
“I just think that this is a temporary fix and I believe that the solution coming out is temporary,” said Keisha Smith, who was dropping off her 6-year-old granddaughter at Ronald E. McNair on the city’s West Side. “We have to remain mindful that this is something for now … like a Band-Aid and the issue is not resolved.”
Had there been a strike, Emanuel would have had to face residents who already are upset over major increases in property taxes and other fees. It would also complicate his bid to restore public trust in his leadership and the city’s police force due to this year’s dramatic increase in shootings and homicides and last year’s release of a video of a white officer fatally shooting black teenager Laquan McDonald.
The result seems to have been a markedly different tone during CTU and CPS negotiations than in 2012, when Emanuel cancelled a teachers’ pay raise and Lewis called Emanuel “the murder mayor” because of violence in the city.
After the agreement was reached, Lewis said it was “good for kids, is good for clinicians, is good for paraprofessionals, for teachers, for the community and we’re very pleased that we were able to come to this tentative agreement.”