Thomas Barrat /

February 5, 2016; Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune

Headlines last week focused on negotiations between the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) board and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). Talks are not going well, with each side pointing to serious consequences if no agreement can be reached. But behind those headlines, more significant issues remain to be tackled.

The school year began last September with a new contract needing to be negotiated, and that remains so. Last week, the teachers’ union rejected the district’s last offer, leaving the situation unresolved. The Chicago Tribune article reports: “Contract talks, which have now gone on for more than a year, will move into a final fact-finding stage that must precede any potential strike. A deal could be reached during that process.”

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, “the union’s 40-person bargaining unit unanimously rejected a new four-year contract that would have [also] given teachers small annual pay raises, capped the number of charter schools at 130 and ruled out economic layoffs in exchange for teachers picking up their full, 9 percent pension payments.”

However, according to the Better Government Association’s Sarah Karp, “teachers were offered a pay raise, but there was a big catch: CPS educators would essentially be paying for the salary increase by sacrificing the most experienced members of their teaching force.” The board’s offer required as many as 2,000 of the district’s most experienced teachers to voluntarily retire or the agreement would be nullified:

The board was offering $1,500 per year of service to teachers of retirement age and $750 to support staff to leave, according to the CTU. If at least 1,500 teachers and 700 other staffers took advantage of the buyout offer, the contract would stand, according to the CPS offer. But, if not enough employees signed up for early retirement, then CPS could reopen the contract—which union members feared would lead to layoffs.

At a press conference on Tuesday, February 2nd, CTU President Karen Lewis said the union voted down the contract offer because, “It would have pushed out 2,200 of our seasoned, experienced educators, disproportionately impacting African-American and Latino educators. It will lead to ballooning class sizes and the cuts the board proposed were solely out of our pockets.”

CPS officials project that this plan would save the district as much as $70 million in years three and four, an amount equal to the salary increases included in the proposals.

The issues under debate in these ongoing negotiations pale when compared to the much larger issues facing Chicago’s public schools—issues which cannot be solved by teachers and the school board. The district began the current school year with a balanced budget, but only after assuming it would receive half a billion dollars in new state funding to help meet its pension-funding burden. But with Illinois’s Republican governor and Democratic legislature unable to agree on a budget, these funds remain unrealized. Also stalled by the standoff in the capital are discussions on how to solve the problem of the seriously underfunded pension plan.

Governor Bruce Rauner has been unwilling to move forward without agreement on “structural” reforms that now include a state takeover of Chicago public schools. In comments last week, the Tribune reports, “The governor…accused his old friend Emanuel of ‘kicking the can’ and costing taxpayers ‘more in the long run.’ Rauner argued that there are only two alternatives for CPS: bankruptcy [followed by a state takeover] or ‘massive’ tax increases.” Mayor Emanuel responded in kind, saying that the governor’s talk of bankruptcy and state takeover had caused the district to pay more in interest as it issued new bonds earlier in the week.

The mayor also pushed for changes in the state formula for school funding that would treat Chicago more fairly: “Chicago students make up 20 percent of the student population statewide. Our taxpayers make up 20 percent of the revenue. Yet, we get a little bit shy of 15 percent of the revenue back for education. There are a lot of structural, historical inequities in the system.”—Martin Levine