Chicago Public Schools students returned to class Tuesday to teachers who still have no contract and a budget that remains $480 million short and depends on help from a gridlocked Springfield.
And on a tour of several schools, CEO Forrest Claypool encouraged parents to get on the phones and demand that assistance.
“We want them to contact their local representative, their local senator, the governor and let them know education funding has to be a priority, and also that Chicago should be treated like every other suburb and downstate school district when it comes to funding teacher pensions,” Claypool said after a tour of Wells High School on Tuesday.
Only Chicago pays its own teacher pensions as well as contributions for teachers elsewhere in the state.
As for ongoing contract negotiations, the Chicago Teachers Union said the Board of Education wants to freeze the raises teachers receive for gaining experience or continuing education — known as steps and lanes — in addition to asking teachers to pay more toward their pensions, Vice President Jesse Sharkey said. Currently, the board pays 7 of the 9 percent employee contribution.
“ ‘Lanes’ and ‘steps’ have a lot to do with the recognition that the additional education and additional experience make you better at your job,” Sharkey said.
He also confirmed that members are starting to take unofficial straw polls on a strike vote to see what members want to do with negotiations now taking place with a mediator. The CTU’s ruling body, known as the House of Delegates, will meet Wednesday night, but Sharkey said a strike vote isn’t yet imminent.
State law requires 75 percent of union members to concur in order to walk out; it also wouldn’t allow an actual strike until at least January, around the time Claypool has said he’ll have to make more cuts absent a pension solution.
Asked a freeze on raises, Claypool would say only that teachers “need to help us bend the cost curve of the contract.”
“We want a fair contract but one that’s also fair to the kids, too, because we can’t save the teachers pension and also save the classroom unless teachers are part of the solution at the bargaining table,” he said.
A few miles away outside Kelvyn Park High School, which has lost hundreds of students in recent years as new charter schools moved nearby, students wondered how they’re supposed to succeed with ever-shrinking resources.
The Hermosa high school of about 780 is slated to lose about $2.2 million from last year and 19 staff positions.
“We have no college counselor,” Sherilyn Flores, a 17-year-old senior, said before the morning bell rang. “I’m more worried about college this year than any other senior would be.”
The cuts have been going on since her freshman year in 2012, she said, adding: “High school doesn’t feel like high school anymore.”
Kelvyn Park lost the school’s social worker who led a weekly support group for girls who survived sexual assault and abuse, and teachers who coached sports and sponsored the National Honor Society.
CPS budgets a set amount of money per student, so budgets rise and fall with enrollment. District spokeswoman Emily Bittner chalked up some of the loss to students leaving and said more of the cuts resulted from the end to a past practice of letting schools hang on to money even if enrollment fell below projections.
A multimillion-dollar federal grant also ran out in 2014, she said, adding, “Our priority is to make sure that dollars follow students so that we distribute enough resources to schools with increasing enrollment.”
“Enrollment is down for a reason,” said Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago), “which is that privately operated schools have come into this neighborhood and sent out glossy mailers to all these families, recruiting students away from Kelvyn Park, so this is not an accident that there are fewer students here than there were last year or the year before. It’s the result of deliberate policies that are draining this school of the resources it needs to be successful.”