Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Chicago Teachers Union, School Board Reach Tentative Contract Agreement
CTU president Karen Lewis gives a statement about negotiations between CPS and CTU that averted a strike in an early-hour press conference on Oct. 11, 2016.

Juan Perez Jr. and Nereida Moreno
Chicago Tribune

The Chicago Teachers Union announced a tentative contract agreement with the school board minutes before a midnight strike deadline, meaning classrooms in the city will be open Tuesday.

The two sides narrowly averted what would have been the second strike of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s tenure after nearly 12 hours of talks Monday. The four year deal agreed to by union leaders still needs to be ratified by the CTU’s House of Delegates and voted on by full membership.

“What I will tell you is that it wasn't easy, as you all know,” CTU president Karen Lewis told reporters late Monday, flanked by CPS Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson and members of the union's Big Bargaining Team.

“Clearly, we had some issues and there's some things we're going to still be working on. But what we found is that what we ended up with is something that's 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,” Lewis said.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel monitored negotiations from City Hall and after midnight held a news conference with CPS chief Forrest Claypool and school board president Frank Clark.

“The teachers' hard work will be respected in this contract, and appropriately rewarded. Chicago Public Schools' finances will be stronger and on firmer ground because of this agreement. Parents and taxpayers will be relieved, and more importantly, reassured, that we all came together to work together with a common purpose,” Emanuel said.

Claypool thanked Lewis and CTU leadership and said: “We are open for business tomorrow.”

Lewis said the contract includes a commitment from the school board on kindergarten through second grade class sizes and on teacher layoffs and recalls. The settlement also deals with the teacher pension pickup, long a hangup in contract talks, Lewis said.

“We have a commitment from the board on our pension pickup. And we have a commitment from the board on a host of other things that really will make the classrooms work a lot better and will keep people,” she said.

Under the proposed contract, CTU members hired before Dec. 31, 2016, will keep the pension pickup. “The new hires will not have it, but they will get at some point a salary adjustment,” Lewis said. “So it's about compensation.”

Monday’s late night dramatics followed well over a year of negotiations to replace a contract reached after a seven day strike in 2012. A key union demand has been more money for schools, particularly from special taxing districts, and indications were Emanuel’s administration was coming through on that front.

Emanuel agreed to declare surplus from tax increment financing districts of $175 million, three sources told the Chicago Tribune. CPS would get at least half of that amount, the sources said.

The union has pointed to the surplus TIF funds as a source of money that could be used to protect jobs and ensure teachers get raises they believe they deserve.

Before the late night announcement, a strike had seemed very real. Many CTU members spent Monday afternoon picking up strike materials outside a Near West Side union hall and being told to show up for picket lines outside schools at 6 a.m. Tuesday unless they heard otherwise. Volunteers and CTU staff members distributed shirts, picket signs and bundles of twine under a large banner reading “CTU Strike Headquarters.”

Hundreds of teachers stopped in throughout the afternoon to pick up supplies for a possible strike, said Julieta Riesco, a teacher at Drummond Montessori School in Bucktown. Norine Gutekanst, a CTU staff member, said union members were hoping for a resolution but preparing for a strike.

A strike affecting more than 300,000 children and their families would have come at a difficult time for Emanuel, already on his heels politically due to the fallout from police shootings.

Teachers have been working without a contract since June 2015.

During negotiations, CTU leaders outlined a $200 million wish list to offset cuts to pay and benefits, bolster staffing levels and pay for what they say would be a $500-per-student funding increase. The union said the money also would help school counselors, social workers and psychologists; ease classroom sizes in early grades; and restore cuts to library services.

The road to Monday began in May 2015, when CPS announced it would not offer a one-year extension to the deal sealed after the union’s seven-day strike in 2012. The district said it couldn’t afford a built-in 3 percent pay increase, and urged the CTU to help it lobby Springfield for more money.

Not long after that, the union made it known that the district was seeking to phase out the long-standing practice of picking up the bulk of teacher pension contributions. The union said it saw the end of the pension pickup as a pay cut; the city said it was necessary to meet the burgeoning demands of funding teacher pensions.

Lewis quickly described the city’s efforts to eliminate the pension pickup as “strike-worthy” and the union staged its first strike authorization vote in December. According to the union, 88 percent of its members authorized leaders to call a strike if a contract agreement couldn’t be reached, well beyond the 75 percent required by state law.

Both sides appeared close to a deal in January, when Lewis said she would take what she termed a “serious offer” to a team of negotiators for a vote. But the union’s bargaining unit promptly rejected the deal, and it was never brought before the full membership for a vote.

Union leaders said they approved of certain provisions in the proposal but were concerned about the cash-strapped district’s ability to enforce the deal.

“The real problem is the lack of trust in CPS,” Lewis told reporters. A day later, district officials said they would slash school budgets and stop paying the bulk of teacher pension contributions — moves Lewis quickly blasted as “an act of war.”

CTU responded with a one-day walkout April 1 that clogged Loop streets with red-shirted union members. The district argued the walkout was illegal and filed a complaint with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board.

After months of wrangling to get more money from Springfield, the state finally did come through with help for CPS in June. Among the measures passed was one allowing the school board to authorize a property tax levy that officials said would generate $250 million for CPS contributions to the city’s teacher pension fund. CPS isn’t expected to see the additional tax revenue until at least July or August 2017 but is relying on those funds.

Other funding measures approved by Springfield lawmakers included $250 million in grants that would be distributed based on the number of high-poverty students in each of the state’s school districts. CPS said it expects to get about $130 million of that total.

CPS took all that money as a given in a $5.4 billion operating budget that was passed by the school board in August. The district said the budget counted on $31 million in labor savings but that not all of that amount was on the backs of teachers.

A few weeks later, the union took a second strike authorization vote, in part to rally members and in part to ward off any potential legal challenges to a strike. Again, an overwhelming majority of teachers gave their approval for a strike, the union said. A day after announcing results of the vote, the union’s House of Delegates set the Oct. 11 strike date.

Lewis was asked early Tuesday morning how much of a relief it was to reach a tentative agreement.

“You know, it's 22 months of uncertainty that I think is a relief for the entire city,” she said.

Chicago Tribune’s John Byrne, Hal Dardick, and Megan Crepeau contributed.



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