Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday brushed off the renewed threat of a teachers strike and urged the Chicago Teachers Union to be “part of the solution” to the school system’s pension crisis.
Emanuel defended his decision to sign off on a $5.4 billion school budget that assumes teachers will agree to the two-year phaseout of a 7 percent pension payment by the Chicago Public Schools granted to teachers years ago in lieu of a pay raise.
CTU President Karen Lewis responded to that assumption by threatening to lead her members out on strike for the second time in four years. The pension phase-out was included in a tentative contract shot down by the CTU’s 40-person bargaining unit but affirmed by an independent arbitrator.
“We do not know if Mayor [Rahm] Emanuel can stand another teachers’ strike, especially at a time when confidence in his leadership is at an all-time low and the city is in an uproar over another police shooting of another unarmed African-American youth,” she said. “Do not force our hand.”
If Lewis’ threat was aimed at baiting the mayor, Emanuel refused to take that bait.
“I want the teachers to be part of the solution . . . I believe we can strengthen our classrooms and strengthen our teachers’ pensions,” Emanuel said.
“Chicago taxpayers have stepped up to be part of the solution. The State of Illinois, for the first time, has stepped up to be part of the solution. The [CPS] central bureaucracy, in the sense of the fat, has stepped up to be part of the solution. And I think the teachers should be part of the solution in not only stabilizing their finances, but strengthening our classrooms.”
Emanuel pointed to test results that show CPS fourth-graders “lead the nation” in reading gains while eighth-graders are doing in the same in math. He also pointed to a high school graduation rate that, he claimed, is “climbing at a higher rate” than the rest of the country.
“I believe the public knows that. They are willing to step up to be part of the solution . . . as it comes to stabilizing the teachers’ pension. The state has been an issue for all of us for 70 years [by treating] teachers and taxpayers in Chicago differently than they treat downstate. We’ve now resolved that issue. But teachers — as it relates to securing their own pensions dating to a decision Mayor [Harold] Washington made for one year — need to be part of it,” he said.
“The public expects and wants them to be part of it so they can continue to strengthen the classrooms, [achieve] academic excellence while strengthening CPS overall finances, which are mainly about the teachers’ pension. And they will be the beneficiary of both.”
Emanuel has agreed to raise property taxes by $250 million for teacher pensions.
That’s in addition to the $588 million property tax increase for police and fire pensions, and school construction approved by the City Council last fall and the $250 million tax he’s about to slap on water and sewer bills to save the Municipal Employees pension fund.
In exchange, the state agreed to give CPS roughly $600 million in pension help — but $215 million of that bail-out has big strings attached. It’s contingent on Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic-controlled Illinois General Assembly solving the state’s pension crisis in January.
If there is no state pension deal, it’ll blow another giant hole in the CPS budget.
Last year, mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia warned that Chicago faced an ugly repeat of the 2012 teachers strike if a “hard-headed” and “confrontational” Emanuel were re-elected.
Garcia warned then that Emanuel’s bullying missteps instigated the seven-day teachers’ strike in 2012 that was Chicago’s first in 25 years and predicted that the same thing would happen again unless Emanuel changed his stripes.
Now that CTU is racheting up the strike talk, however, Emanuel is once again making it clear that he learned a valuable lesson from the last teachers strike — and he’s not about to make the same mistake twice.
Instead of being provocative, he is keeping his cool. Instead of confronting the union that got the best of him the last time around, then ran a challenger against him, Emanuel is urging the union to join hands while privately hoping that the taxpaying public will be on his side this time.
If he’s wrong and the CTU won’t budge on the pension pickup, Schools CEO Forrest Claypool already has warned that the only alternative will be cuts to the classroom. That’s on top of the $232 million in mid-year cuts made last winter.
In an email to the Chicago Sun-Times on Wednesday, Claypool emphatically denied that eliminating the so-called “pension pickup” was akin to asking teachers to accept a 7 percent pay cut.
“The Jan. 29 deal had an average, 6 percent-plus pay raise for teachers AFTER phasing out [the] pension pick-up,” Claypool wrote.