New CPS-CTU fight over veteran teacher pay reignites labor strife from historic strike

Schools officials promised to hand out $25 million over five years to the district’s most experienced teachers. But exactly how to dole out that money is now up for debate.

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Jennifer Yen, special education teacher at Alexander Graham Bell School, joins the rally as Chicago Public Schools teachers picket Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, at Lane Tech High School.

Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

The controversy boils down to a simple question: A bonus or a base pay raise?

But there are no easy answers in the unfolding, $25 million dispute over extra pay for Chicago Public Schools’ longest-serving and most experienced teachers.

And now the latest tension between the district and the Chicago Teachers Union is threatening to hold up the newly negotiated teachers contract and reignite some of the labor discord that led to last fall’s 11-day strike.

While the union accuses CPS of “illegally reneging on our deal” by offering bonuses instead of permanent raises to those teachers, the district insists it didn’t agree to a provision that could cost millions of dollars more after the contract ends.

The dispute traces back to a City Hall meeting between top union leaders, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson the day before the walkout ended. CPS promised to dole out $25 million over the five years of the contract to reward veteran teachers, who are already the highest paid in the district, for their loyalty and years of service. The deal would impact nearly half of the district’s 21,000 teachers.

At that meeting, the two sides agreed only to the basic terms, such as the dollar amount, and said they would sort out the nitty gritty in later weeks in an effort to demonstrate trust and end the strike with most other issues resolved.

Two months later, those finer details — specifically how the money should be paid — still haven’t been figured out.

The CTU wants the money to go into new “steps” in the CPS pay system, which mark automatic wage bumps once teachers hit certain years of service. The CTU has said its members’ pay plateaus after about 14 years working for CPS — in the district’s current step system, teachers get automatic raises most years through their 14th then not again until they get to 20 years and their final one at 25 years.

Teachers with master’s degrees, for example, will see their pay go up $33,000 from $58,325 in the first year to $91,196 by year 14, and another $5,000 up to $96,415 between year 14 and 30.

The step raises are in addition to the yearly cost-of-living-raises — 16% over five years — that were negotiated this contract and that all teachers get regardless of experience level. With those taken into account, a teacher with a master’s and 14 years experience will make $104,111 in 2024.

Union officials say their agreement to end the strike included a promise from CPS to create new steps for teachers starting at year 14, and that all that was left to be determined was the number of steps and which years they would kick in.

The CTU bargaining team suggested as much in a 41-page document given to members the day before the strike ended that laid out all the tentative agreements: “The full pay schedule will be completed and communicated prior to ratification of the contract.”

School officials say they never agreed to that framework — only the $25 million pricetag.

CPS spokesman Michael Passman said the district is ready to pay this year’s $5 million in bonuses as soon as an agreement is reached.

“Any suggestion that CPS agreed to additional salary steps is false,” Passman said in an emailed statement.

The district’s main contention is that the union’s plan could prove costly — much more than $25 million and extending past the life of the contract because base pay raises compound on each other every year. While the raises could cost as little as $2.5 million to implement in the first year, the figure could top $7 million annually if it continued beyond five years.

Instead, CPS wants to hand out bonuses. If the money is distributed that way, teachers’ base salary wouldn’t get a boost and the district wouldn’t be obligated to continue paying the higher salaries after the contract expires.

Not surprisingly, that position has the union peeved.

“There’s no such thing as a bonus in the history of our compensation package with the board of education,” union vice president Stacy Davis Gates said. “There is zero history, nothing that would give them an indication that we would be OK with a bonus.”

After a Dec. 19 meeting to sort out the loose ends from contract talks yielded no resolution on this issue — CPS only agreed to add one step at year 30 — the CTU the next day filed an unfair labor practice with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. The union alleged in its complaint that CPS is “engaging in regressive bargaining and refusing to honor an agreement reached on wages.”

Josiah Groff, the attorney representing the CTU in the dispute, said he’s confident union leaders have documentation and notes from their meetings with schools officials to show their position is accurate.

“It was entirely clear at the time, and the board is just trying to get out of what they agreed to,” Groff alleged. “This is really a pretty petty dispute to hold up the entire deal over this.”

As the two sides figure out where to go from here, the problem is delaying full implementation of the new $1.5 billion contract.

CPS and CTU officials don’t currently have any more meetings scheduled on the issue.

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