Budget Crisis and/or Union Busting, Chicago Teachers Ask

Kari Lydersen

Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis is leading the union's fight for budget transparency.

The bitter stand-off between the new Chicago Teachers Union progressive leadership slate and the Board of Education continues as the Board released its proposed budget Aug. 10 and the union promptly refused to give up promised 4 percent pay raises, nine paid holidays and other benefits to help the district meet a $370 million budget gap.

The decision was made after a two-hour union meeting attended by about 500 delegates on Aug. 11. Union president Karen Lewis noted that the Board’s lawyer tried to convince the teachers to accept concessions by reminding them of other city unions that have done so. But according to a report in Substance News, about 80 percent of the teachers at the meeting strongly voiced their desire to keep resisting.

They made the decision in part because the district would not make any promises on holding down class sizes. The district has said the proposed concessions would save $120 million and help avoid laying off 1,200 teachers.

Public hearings on the budget are scheduled for Aug. 17-19. But activist journalist and former teacher George N. Schmidt wrote in Substance that the public input process leaves much to be desired.

But the Board has continued to make it nearly impossible for members of the public to actually read and study the document, which runs to more than 2,000 pages, in preparation for the hearings… Several people who are trying to get copies of the 2,000 pages of budget documents are becoming frustrated, as CPS refuses to provide the budget book and related documents to the public at public libraries, ward offices, and in the city’s more than 600 public schools, as has been done in the past. The budget book itself is 433 pages long. However, an additional 1,586 pages of budget information is included on a CD that is placed in a pocket in the inside back cover of the budget book. Another problem with public access to the budget prior to the hearings is that CPS officials have not paginated the 2,000 pages of documents.

A multi-billion-dollar federal bill passed last week providing $415 million for education jobs in Illinois could possibly provide $105 million for the Chicago schools. Statewide, 11,000 education jobs could be lost. The new federal funding is expected to help, but it will also go to debt and infrastructure costs.

Many Chicago teachers say the Board of Education has their priorities all wrong, as millions are being spent on a new downtown campus for Jones High School – near Walter Payton, another relatively new school serving a relatively affluent population. Critics say the new Jones campus is unnecessary and the money would be much better spent retaining teachers. Some see it as not just poor decision-making but a concerted effort to bust” the relatively powerful teachers union.

Schmidt notes that three rank and file teachers have been party to every negotiating session, and he describes the new leadership’s process as much more democratic and transparent than that of the slate they deposed. But while the union has gotten more transparent, Schmidt says the administration has gotten even more opaque in recent years. He wrote:

In the years since the last June budget hearings (which took place in June 2006), Chicago’s major media have virtually ended regular coverage of major Chicago Board of Education events. Even the publication and comment on a $7 billion budget (which is roughly what the CPS FY 2011 budget will be, when operations and capital are added together) is ignored by the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune, while other media cover the stories sporadically with a much reduced reporting staff.

Meanwhile Schmidt, a former teacher who was fired for publishing exams to make a statement, shows on the Substance News website that the contract negotiations are not the only big news for the union this month. The union also had a float for the first time ever in the Bud Billiken parade on the city’s south side Aug. 14 – an historic African-American family tradition. And Aug. 20-21 the Caucus of Organized Rank and File Educators (CORE), which propelled the new leadership to victory, will hold a conference in Chicago.

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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