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Lewis to CPS parents: April 1 CTU action ‘like an extra holiday’

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis speaks to parents Monday at the Parent Mentor Convention | Brian Jackson/ For the Sun-Times

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis assured public school parents on Monday that an April 1 action threatened by her union in response to CPS furlough days and possible pay cuts won’t drag out.

“I wish I could tell them, ‘Look at it like an extra holiday,’ right? Look at it that way. That’s the only thing I can tell them to make them feel better,” Lewis said after speaking at a parent conference in Woodlawn. “But they shouldn’t be nervous, they shouldn’t be upset. There should be no anxiety around it, it won’t be something that’s open-ended. That’s something that they need to understand.

“I’m talking about April 1,” she clarified. “Now May 16, I can’t promise how that’s going to go,” she continued, referring to the first possible date on which her 27,000 members could legally launch a contract strike.

The CTU’s feisty leader further backed off striking on April 1 over unfair labor practices that was, as of last week, “all but assured” to happen. Instead, she kept calling that date a
“showdown one way or another,” saying the members will soon decide what to do.

Lewis also said the union will respond to CPS’ latest contract offers later this week.

Union members, who have been working without a new contract since June 30, were angry that Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool last week imposed three unpaid furlough days on all CPS workers. That came on top of Claypool’s saying in March he would halt a 7 percent pension payment CPS had been making for teachers and other CTU staffers since the 1980s.

The spectre of the cancelled pension contribution, which the CTU is calling a 7 percent pay cut, led top officials and their attorney to assert their right to strike if the school district unilaterally stopped it during ongoing contract negotiations. A recent Board of Education offer proposed gradually phasing out the payment but that proposal was rejected on other grounds.

CPS lawyers disagree that a strike could happen before mid-May; Claypool also shot the idea down on Friday saying he had no immediate plans to stop paying for teacher pensions while a state required fact-finding process played out.

District spokeswoman Emily Bittner said on Monday that “April 1 is a regular school day, and we expect students and teachers to be there as normal. CPS is working to do everything possible to reach a final agreement on a fair contract.”

CPS continues to seek financial help from Springfield, where Democrat-led lawmakers have locked horns with Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who wants reforms enacted in exchange for funding.

Lewis made it perfectly clear on Monday whom she blames when she told the hundreds of parent mentors that they and students and teachers have become hostages in the ongoing state budget battle.

“We are all being held hostage by a governor who doesn’t want to work for us,” Lewis told the crowd at the Logan Square Neighborhood Association’s Parent Mentor celebration and workshop at Apostolic Church of God, 6339 S. Kenwood Ave.

“The budget is being held hostage by a . . . ” Lewis paused before finishing her sentence, “sociopath.”

Among the victims of the budget impasse is the Parent Mentor program, which trains parents to work as extra help in classrooms at about 70 low-income schools concentrated in Chicago but elsewhere in the state, too. The Illinois State Board of Education recommended $2 million for the program that served about 15,000 students last year — a $600,000 increase from the year before — but Rauner’s proposed budget eliminated all funding.