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Karen Lewis bashes Claypool over ‘strike-worthy’ contract demand

A call for Chicago teachers to pay their full pension contributions is “strike-worthy,” Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said Friday.

That amounts to a seven percent pay cut for teachers, Lewis told reporters at a downtown news conference.

It’s an effort by new Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool to “force us into another strike,” she said.

The union leader’s statements came after CPS withdrew its offer for a one-year contract.

On Friday, it was clear that all of the post-election fence-mending fell apart with the demand that Mayor Rahm Emanuel made last month and Claypool has continued that teachers effectively accept the seven percent pay cut unless Springfield comes up with aid to the tune of $500 million.

Lewis seemed to be directing more of her anger at Claypool than at Emanuel.

“They could have been the heroes in this, but instead sheriff Claypool has decided to blow things up and show us how tough he can be,” Lewis said.

CPS had ended the attempt months ago to have teachers make their full pension contributions during negotiations for the one-year agreement.

But that contract specified teachers would not get pay raises for one year.

Claypool did not return repeated phone calls or text messages, apparently concerned about exacerbating the tensions.

RELATED: Brown: One more thing to worry about — another teacher strike

A CPS spokeswoman, in a statement, said “CPS remains dedicated to reaching a multi-year agreement with our teachers that respects their hard work and protects the academic gains that they’ve helped our students achieve. We will continue to negotiate in good faith at the bargaining table to reach an agreement on a broader and longer contract that is beneficial for our children, their teachers, the taxpayers and the entire system.”

Claypool said earlier this week he foresees no solution to the $9.5 billion CPS pension crisis that does not include an end to the seven percent “pension pick-up” that started years ago in lieu of a teacher pay raise and has continued ever since.

He also told the Sun-Times that the sticking point in negotiations was how student test scores are used to evaluate teachers, a point that led the teachers to strike in 2012.

“We’re not budging on evaluations — that ship has sailed, that was agreed to, the teachers were a big part of that process,” he said. “There was a lot of negotiating four years ago over this that’s embedded in that contract and we’re not going to go backwards.”

Lewis on Friday said the evaluations themselves are not an issue.

“It’s how the teacher evaluation is used,” she said, adding that the ideal way to use the evaluations would be for “feedback.”

“They seem to be rather punitive and overlaid with paperwork,” she said.

CTU President Karen Lewis responds to Gov. Bruce Rauner's proposals for CPS and talks to reporters about contract negotiations. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

CTU President Karen Lewis responds to Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposals for CPS and talks to reporters about contract negotiations. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

The breakdown in negotiations means Chicago teachers will likely start the school year next month without a contract, causing uncertainty for the year, Lewis said.

Teachers could vote to go on strike at any time, but legal requirements would mean the soonest they could actually be on strike would be sometime this winter, CTU attorney Robert Bloch said.

“Unfortunately, we must go back to the drawing board and start over again because Forrest Claypool has withdrawn from the agreement we were on the verge of reaching,” Bloch said.

Lewis said it’s up to the union members to decide whether to strike, but she hopes “to get to some other place before we have to do any of this.”

The “pension-pickups” have been a sticking point for the union.

Currently, CPS pays seven percent of a teacher’s nine percent pension contribution. The teacher pays the other two percent.

If the one-year contract had been approved, the pension contribution arrangement would not have changed.

CPS and CTU lawyers are scheduled to meet next week.

“We will eventually land an agreement,” Lewis said. “It will happen.”

The breakdown in negotiation comes as Emanuel has tried to “hit the re-set button,” in a second term to rebuild strained and soured relationships that may have cost him politically.

One of his first calls after the election was to Lewis, who was planning to run for mayor herself before being diagnosed with brain cancer and persuading County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia to take her place.

The conversation that was the first in four years was followed by regular calls and text messages aimed at rebuilding a relationship so adversarial it culminated in the 2012 teachers strike that was Chicago’s first in 25 years.

When Claypool was appointed CEO last month, he took his lead from Emanuel and placed one of his first calls to Lewis.

“We had a very good conversation. I told Karen that I want to meet with her as soon as possible. I’d like to have, if possible, my first meeting with her because that’s where I want to start. It is the teachers that make the difference in the classroom. And how we support them is the critical idea,” Claypool said on that day.

“In addition to that, we need CTU, despite some of the rhetoric, to be our partners in Springfield.”

Pressed to describe the agenda for his first meeting with Lewis, Claypool said, “She has a list. She talked to me about her list. So, we’re gonna go through her list.”

And what did Lewis tell Claypool in that first phone call?

“I said: Run, Forrest, run . . . away from this. This would be a mistake for you.”

But the job was already his, which Lewis knew because she said she’d spoken to the mayor the night before.

“What I’m upset about is the mayor and I had a very brief talk [in the past] about what the structure should look like. . . . And then I never hear another thing. Yes, he called me last night — past my bedtime — again, to tell me,” Lewis said on the day Claypool was named.

“That’s not collaboration. . . . And once I make the mayor understand what real collaboration looks like, maybe we can trickle that down to the board and CPS and our relationship. . . . Don’t call me at the last minute and tell me the plan’s already been made.”