CTU strike averted, tensions remain

Although the Chicago Teachers Union continues to protest and disagree with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool, it decided not to strike on May 1.

By Eric Bradach

The loss of another payday for Chicago Public Schools teachers led to a lack of support for a one-day strike for May 1, according to union leaders.

The Chicago Teachers Union has had an ongoing public dispute with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS CEO Forrest Claypool over budget cuts, which led the union to consider a strike on May Day, which is also International Workers’ Day. Following an April 5 CTU House of Delegates meeting, union president Karen Lewis said members were not in favor of a walkout. Instead, schools will remain open, but CTU members are asked to participate in a series of demonstrations against the “mayor’s illusion of a sanctuary city.”

“What we have learned for the past month of listening to our members through school visits, workshops and trainings is that they are frustrated and outraged,” Lewis said. “The mayor and his handpicked Board of Education have chosen to take the skin off our backs to alleviate a budget crisis that their leadership has created.”

Lewis also pointed blame at Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has been in a budget stalemate with the Democratic-controlled General Assembly for more than two years.

“Both the mayor and the Illinois governor have the power to stop budget cuts and to keep school doors open with the strike of a pen,” Lewis said. “Instead they do nothing but pointlessly bicker and leave us all in limbo under the looming threat of ending the school year early.”

The union also passed a resolution calling for an emergency meeting to respond in the event that CPS incorporates more furlough days, Lewis said, and asked Emanuel to release tax increment financing funds to fill in the city’s education budget gap.

CPS has been scrambling to plug the budget hole with provisions, including four unpaid furlough days with two remaining in June. Currently, CPS is considering ending the school year early by almost three weeks—or 13 school days—on June 1 as opposed to June 20, according to Lewis.

In November 2016, City Council approved Emanuel’s 2017 budget proposal while relying on a $215.2 million grant from the state for teacher pensions. Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed a bill in December 2016 that would have provided those funds because it lacked reforms to the pension system, as reported Dec. 12, 2016, by The Chronicle.

Lewis said the furlough days, although legal, are an “abrogation” of CTU’s contract by altering the salary schedule.

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton has attached a bill with those funds to the Senate’s “grand bargain” budget package. It will also provide $221.3 million for the 2018 fiscal year and supply pension funding in following years, according to state legislative records.

The bill passed in February, but the 11 other bills in the package must also pass in order for it to take effect, according to Cullerton’s spokesman John Patterson. The package has been put on hold because there is not enough support from Republicans, who have been accused of acting under the direction of Rauner, he added.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Board of Education and five parents of CPS students have filed a lawsuit Feb. 14 against the state, Rauner and the Illinois State Board of Education. It accuses the defendants of creating a separate and unequal education funding system and violating the Illinois Civil Rights Act, according to the lawsuit.

“Chicago students, who are overwhelmingly students of color, are learning in a separate but unequal system,” Claypool said in a public statement regarding the lawsuit the same day. “The message from the state is that their educations matter less than children in the rest of Illinois, and that is both morally and legally indefensible.”

According to a public response to the lawsuit from Illinois Secretary of Education Beth Purvis, the governor’s bipartisan Illinois School Funding Reform Commission has recently issued its report, which recommends an equitable school funding formula that defines adequacy according to each school district’s needs.

“The governor remains focused on moving forward these recommendations and hopes that CPS will be a partner in that endeavor,” Purvis said.

On the second scheduled furlough day, April 7, more than 100 CTU members, students and supporters gathered at the River Point tower, 444 W. Lake St., to protest.

Matthew Luskin, a CTU organizer with three sons in CPS, said the union chose the location because it was built with $30 million in TIF funds. That is $30 million that should have gone to saving public schools, and Emanuel and Claypool can not just wait for more funding from state legislators and the governor, he added.

“Springfield needs to put more money into Chicago [schools], no question about it,” Luskin said. “But are we going to just sit on our hands and wait until Bruce Rauner’s heart thaws out?”

Katie Osgood, a special education teacher at Langston Hughes Elementary School, 240 W. 104 St., said she wanted to not only speak out against the budget cuts, but also to stand up for fellow special education teacher Sarah Chambers. She said Chambers has been threatened with the termination of her job because she advocates for more funding and has criticized CPS to the press, she added.

“The mayor can fix these problems tomorrow if he so chooses,” Osgood said, adding that the children should matter more than the city’s high-rises.

Osgood said CTU will not accept a shorter school year, and the budget cuts threaten the most vulnerable students.

Along with demanding use of TIF funds and reinstating the furlough days, Lewis said Emanuel should “get out of the way of an elected-representative school board.”

“So much of what our members do every day is out of love for their students and their profession,” Lewis said. “We will continue to stand together in solidarity with our students, parents, immigrant communities and other labor allies to demand our district receives the revenue, and the communities that stand with our members in the difficult days ahead as we take a series of actions to protest those cuts.”