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Brown: Time for CTU to put down the bullhorn and talk to members

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey joins members of the union and the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression to protest outside the monthly Chicago City Council meeting, Wednesday, June 22, 2016. File Photo.| Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool was 17 minutes into a news conference on school budgets Wednesday before he even uttered the words “teachers union.”

Even then, it was only in response to a reporter’s question.

His words were restrained. There were no accusations, no fingerpointing, no blaming.

Instead, he offered a mild reiteration of past statements that the teachers union still needs to be part of the solution to the district’s financial problems — a situation significantly improved but not resolved by the recent education funding deal in Springfield.

If Claypool uttered a provocative word, I didn’t hear it, his intention clearly being the opposite.

OPINION

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Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, fired back within the hour with a written statement complaining in part that “a short-term fix from Springfield cannot resolve the long-term damage done to CPS by the Chicago Board of Education and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.”

“Mayor Emanuel, Forrest Claypool and their wealthy friends and developers should pay their fair share instead of paying lip service to teachers, students and parents,” it concluded.

It was more of the same rhetoric the CTU has been using to fire up its members, who have now gone more than a year without a new contract.

As a member of a labor union, I can appreciate that there’s not a great deal to be gained when someone outside the union wags a finger and lectures those inside the union about what they ought to do, not that I’ve ever let that stop me.

But I can’t help but be baffled by CTU’s continued belligerence in the face of the positive developments out of Springfield.

For the first time in many years, there’s some real movement toward getting state and local taxpayers to pay more to protect Chicago classrooms and to shore up teacher pensions. Not just movement, but real money that ensures schools will open on time this fall and limits the damage.

The missing piece is a teachers contract that reduces the district’s long-term labor costs — or at least keeps costs under control.

Union leaders seemed to recognize what needed to be done last January when they brought their Big Bargaining Team what they described as a “serious offer” from CPS and put it to a vote, only to see it rejected.

That contract would have included a two-year phaseout of the district’s practice of paying the teachers’ share of their pension contributions, along with a raise that would more than offset the cost to the teachers over the course of the four-year deal.

At the time, I criticized CTU leadership for bringing the offer to its members if it wasn’t prepared to win approval.

In retrospect, I could see that union members probably had justification for thinking they shouldn’t have to step up first to make concessions when neither the city or the state had come through with any money.

But now the state and city have come through, and I keep looking for the union to start steering its members back to reality, instead of stoking their anger.

It’s true the Springfield fix is only temporary and that the state needs to devise a long-term revenue solution and a fair school funding formula.

It’s also true there’s nothing unique about CPS picking up most of the teachers’ pension contributions, a fairly common practice at school districts around the state, and one for which the teachers shouldn’t be treated as villains.

But there’s a legitimate public policy argument in favor of teachers contributing to their own pensions, just as private sector workers contribute to Social Security. And on a practical level, it’s something that sticks in the craw of Gov. Bruce Rauner and Republican legislators, which makes it an unnecessary political impediment to further funding reform.

The path forward is pretty clear, and Wednesday would have been a good opportunity for the CTU to start pivoting in that direction.

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