Chicago Public Schools Is Bleeding Out But Neither the Teachers Union Nor the Governor Will Help

Yesterday, I woke up to the news that 292 people were shot and 51 people murdered in Chicago in the first month of the New Year. Then later in the day, I learned that the tentative offer Chicago Public Schools (CPS) made to the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) was rejected, making me think of a different kind of death, a killing-me-so-so-softly kind of demise. If CPS were a person, I would call 911 to take him to a Level 1 Trauma Center right now. This poor man is lying on the curb, totally exasperated…pulse is fading…bleeding profusely from multiple open wounds. When the first responders arrive—the CTU, the school board, the mayor, the governor and state legislators—all they do is blame each other for the man’s injuries and fight about the best course of treatment. Meanwhile, poor Mr. CPS is bleeding out and no one is reaching for a tourniquet. After 14 months of bargaining, CTU’s 40-member “Big Bargaining Team” unanimously rejected the proposed four-year contract that its union leadership had touted as a “serious offer” from CPS. CTU President Karen Lewis acknowledged a “lack of trust” her members have for CPS and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, but, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, she admitted that  she was surprised that her members didn’t take the deal. That makes two of us, Karen! The Problem Let’s face it, CPS and its appointed school board screwed up its own finances with bad investments, corruption and mismanagement, and over-promising pension benefits and then underfunding them, a situation impossible to be sustained long-term. Still, the district’s financial failures are everybody’s problem:
  • CPS is short $480 million to finance the rest of this school year.
  • The district is projecting a $1.1 billion deficit for next school year.
  • Despite terminating nearly 300 central office positions last month, the district would need to lay off some teachers this month to close the budget gap if no contract agreement is reached.
  • The district postponed a plan to borrow $875 million last week to finance its current operating budget. Now with a rejected teachers contract, financial experts fear the short-term uncertainty—coupled with the district’s credit rating three tiers below junk bond status—has probably spooked investors from lending that kind of money to a school district on the precipice of bankruptcy.
"There were a lot of things that were great,"  Lewis said to the Chicago Tribune of the city's offer. "I'm not going to tell you they weren't. However, the things that will affect the classrooms the most—especially around the budget—were the ones that were concerning to people." News flash: The issues around the budget are concerning, but it’s virtually impossible for teachers to escape financial pain when negotiating with a desperately broke school district. The school district can’t negotiate taxing the wealthy, only lawmakers can do that. The Rejected Solution Here’s what the district had offered the CTU:
  • Continued raises for seniority and experience through a steps-and-lanes salary structure, in addition to cost of living increases at 2.75 percent next year and 3 percent for each of the following two years.
  • A freeze on new charter schools; CPS would only open new charter schools after it closes existing ones, as well as a commitment to push for revisions in the legislation that authorizes the Illinois Charter Commission, which currently can override CPS’ charter decisions.
  • Raising at least $200 million in revenue by restoring a dedicated 0.26 percent property tax levy for teachers’ pensions.
  • No teacher layoffs.
All these benefits would come in exchange for:
  • Teachers paying their entire 9 percent pension contribution, instead of their current 2 percent. Teachers would pay an additional 3.5 percent in July and the whole 7 percent as of July 2017.
  • Teachers paying part of their health insurance premium at 0.8 percent next year and another 0.7 percent the following year.
CPS CEO Forrest Claypool, who represents the dying school district, said he was “disappointed” that the union left him out to dry. "This agreement provided pay raises, guaranteed job security and met the union's key demands, including restrictions on charter school expansion, raises for seniority in addition to cost-of-living increases, and more classroom autonomy for teachers," Claypool said. Death by Debt and Indifference Last month Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner said he’d rather have CPS file for bankruptcy and let the state take it over than provide the district with a half-billion dollar bailout. The Democrats have a supermajority in both the state House and Senate, but they lack the unity and political will to break through the state’s year-long budget impasse and get things done. Despite CPS being in critical condition, fixing the district by creating tax revenue streams and reforming the pension system is not at the top of state lawmakers’ to-do list. The state is facing a pension shortfall of $111 billion and $10 billion in unpaid bills. In fact, CPS, the city of Chicago, Cook County, and the state of Illinois are all fiscally bleeding out. My daughter in eighth grade has been auditioning around the city for a spot in some of the district high schools’ music programs. She very well may get into a school and then next year find that all the music and art teachers have been laid off. Seeing that CTU could decide to strike as early as mid-May or choose to wait until start of the next school year, I’m tempted to just enroll her into a charter high school that may not even have a music program. But if CPS runs out of money, a strike or massive layoffs won’t be necessary. Schools would just shut down—district and charter alike. The district would just bleed out and die. At that point, a tourniquet won’t help. A new union contract won’t make a difference. The feds will have to swoop in with their defibrillator—and the pain of that shock will be almost unbearable.
Marilyn Rhames
Marilyn Anderson Rhames is an educator, writer, thought leader and social entrepreneur. She is founder and CEO of Teachers Who Pray, a faith-based nonprofit that has more than 100 chapters nationwide. She is also the author of the upcoming book, “The Master Teacher: 12 Spiritual Lessons That Can Transform Schools and Revolutionize Public Education.” ...

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