Chicago schools face budget cuts. Will teachers’ union budge?

Like other school districts nationwide, Chicago is facing budget cuts – meaning layoffs and crowded classrooms. The teachers' union is being asked to make concessions, including their guaranteed annual pay raise.

Stephen J. Carrera/Special to the Christian Science Monitor
Students wait with their teachers to be picked up outside school at the end of the school day in Chicago. Faced with budget cuts, school officials want the teachers' union to accept a pay freeze and other concessions.

It’s a situation that’s been playing out in school districts all across the country: A teachers’ unions is pressured to give up promised pay increases, take furlough days, or pay more for benefits in order to help with extreme budget cuts.

The most recent showdown is in Chicago, where the school board on Tuesday unanimously approved drastic measures, including giving the CEO the power to lay off teachers, increase class sizes to 35, and establish an emergency line of credit of up to $800 million.

The hope, say officials, is that thousands of layoffs and crowded classrooms won’t be necessary, if the unions will give in on certain concessions, including giving up a 4 percent annual salary increase guaranteed in their contract.

“We remain hopeful that [the union] will share in recognizing the challenges almost every district across the country is facing,” Chicago Schools CEO Ron Huberman told the Sun-Times. In his presentation to the board on Tuesday, Mr. Huberman highlighted concessions made by unions in such districts as San Diego and Las Vegas.

With severe budget shortfalls in most cities and states around the country, such concessions have become more and more common:

  • In San Diego, teachers agreed to five unpaid furlough days to avoid layoffs.
  • In New Jersey and Connecticut, dozens of local unions have agreed to wage freezes rather than layoffs.
  • And in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg earlier this month declared he would eliminate across-the-board salary hikes for teachers for two years “to save the jobs of some 4,400 teachers.”

In Chicago, the school board could have decided the district doesn’t have enough money to pay the salary increases, thus reopening the contract. But such a move would have led to the risk of teacher strikes – particularly dangerous in a mayoral election year.

Instead, the route taken seems designed to back the union into a corner, facing the risk that they will be blamed by angry parents if they refuse concessions, and crowded classrooms result.

“It’s going to put the union in a tough place to make difficult decisions,” says Rosemaria Genova, a spokesperson for the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). “You’re pitting teachers’ wages against their students’ success. It’s absolutely reprehensible. Teachers should not have to be punished for wanting to get the wages that were promised to them because the district can’t manage its funds.”

Ms. Genova – and outgoing CTU president Marilyn Stewart – say that the choice being set up is a false one, and that there are other places the district could cut money that would have less effect on teachers or students. And Genova says that even giving up the 4 percent increase would only save the district about $80 million – a fraction of the shortfall, which is at least $400 million, and could be far more.

The district has said the pay freeze (doing away with any raises, in addition to the 4-percent increase) would save $135 million, and they’re hopeful that they can convince the governor to provide more help as well.

“It’s a fluid situation, and we’re evaluating all possible ways of developing an efficient way of running the district,” says CPS spokesman Frank Shuftan, noting that many people in the central office have been laid off and expenditures like consulting contracts are under review. “But we’re also recognizing that there is a financial crisis facing this district and districts all over the country… We’re hopeful that negotiations will be fruitful.”


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