CTU vows ‘showdown’ on April 1

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CTU President Karen Lewis and union officials at a news conference Friday | Tina Sfondeles/For Sun-Times

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis on Friday vowed a one-day “showdown” on April 1  but wouldn’t specify what that meant  for teachers embroiled in tense contract negotiations with Chicago Public Schools.

Lewis’ comments appeared to walk back stronger language by the union on Thursday, which said that a move by Chicago Public Schools to have teachers take three unpaid furlough days “all but assures” a teacher walkout on April 1.

On Friday, Lewis wouldn’t spell out whether the action would mean the beginning of a strike or a massive rally downtown. She said union members will meet to make that decision.

Regarding the strike, Lewis said, “It’s still on the table, just like the 7 percent pension pay cut is still on the table.”

“April 1 would be an unfair labor day of action,” Lewis said. “It’s a showdown.”

About an hour before Lewis’s remarks at CTU headquarters, CPS CEO Forrest Claypool said CPS is delaying its plan to stop making a 7 percent contribution to teachers’ pensions until the fact-finding process concludes, likely in May. That process is required for teachers to go on strike over contract issues, he said.

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Claypool said a strike is “not possible” until the middle of May because of “very clear state laws which dictate a process which is not yet complete.”

“We want to do everything possible to get a deal and to let the process with fact finding come to its natural conclusion in the hopes that we can reach a fair agreement, with a raise for teachers, phasing out the pension pickup and addressing many of the quality of life issues the teachers have told us are important,” Claypool said.

The union says a strike wouldn’t be about the contract. It would be about the ongoing issue of the pension pick up, which hasn’t been resolved.

“We do not trust what they say. We only brace ourselves for what they do. Mr. Claypool has rescinded his threat today, but he is clear that he will enforce a 7 percent pay cut ‘at a future date,’” Lewis said. “This is unwise and not productive toward concluding a labor agreement — therefore this unfair labor practice remains unremedied.”

Lewis said April 1 will mark a “showdown for every single teacher, paraprofessional and clinician who is dedicated to their craft, who rises each day to provide instruction and education nurturing to our students.”

The financially beleaguered school system is still waiting for financial help from Springfield. Instead, on Thursday, the Illinois House overwhelmingly passed a bill to replace the Chicago Board of Education appointed by Chicago’s mayor with one that’s elected with 21 members.

“I don’t think the answer to Chicago Public Schools’ finance problems is 21 more politicians,” Claypool said. “The answer is to end the decades of disinvestment in our education.”

CPS has struggled all year to balance its budget and recently borrowed $725 million in bonds at extremely high interest rates to keep school doors open for the remainder of the year. It has laid off 200 administrative employees and another 62 union workers including 17 teachers earlier this week.

The lack of a state budget means CPS isn’t getting pension help from state legislators to help close a $480 million gap.

Friday also marked a state imposed deadline by the State Board of Education for CPS to turn in financial information as the state investigates the school district’s “financial stability” amid Rauner’s desire to have the state take over CPS.

Claypool said CPS was submitting financial information to the State Board of Education — numbers that had been already available publicly as part of CPS’ bond documents.

In a letter to state board of education officials, Claypool and Chicago Board of Education President Frank Clark wrote: “We hope that these materials will also clear up unfortunate misunderstandings about CPS’ finances, particularly the claim that CPS receives more money than the rest of the state through special block grants.”

The letter also seemed to hint that the state has work to do to get its own financial house in order.

“In order to adequately project the information you requested over the next three years, we need the state to provide us with its projections,” the letter says.

On Friday, Claypool reiterated that Rauner has no authority under state law to impose oversight.

“We pointed out repeatedly that the governor has no authority to do that,” Claypool said. “Chicago is not part of the statute that the governor keeps citing.”

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