‘Give Chicago teachers the facts’

Peter Cunningham is the executive director of Education Post, a Chicago-based non-profit communications organization. Previously he worked in the U.S. Department of Education.

Peter Cunningham is executive director of Education Post, a Chicago-based non-profit communications organization promoting education reform.

A democratic organization is supposed to be governed by and for its members, yet a bargaining committee of the Chicago Teachers Union flatly rejected a proposed contract offer from the Chicago Public Schools without consulting their teachers. They didn’t even publicly share the details with their members until after the bargaining committee turned it down.

Still there is confusion. For example, Ray Salazar, a well-known local teacher blogger, said on twitter that he had to piece together the facts based on tweets and press announcements rather than a comprehensive fact sheet.

Many teachers are still in the dark about a deal that offers them net salary hikes, guarantees no economic teacher layoffs for the next four years, and limits charter school growth. The proposal fully funds this year’s required pension contribution of nearly $700 million and includes several other union requests: self-directed professional development, less testing, and fewer observations in the teacher evaluation system.

Finally, it offers an early retirement package that include $1,500 cash for every year of service — which adds up to a $45,000 retirement bonus for a 30-year veteran, over and above their pensions. The deal hinges on 2,250 teachers and paraprofessionals — maybe half those who are eligible — opting for early retirement. If the number falls short, CPS can reopen the contract though CPS expects more than enough will take it.

Nevertheless, the union bargaining committee turned it down, prompting CPS CEO Forrest Claypool to announce layoffs and cuts, beginning this month. The actual number of pink slips for teachers will be pretty low, but hundreds of school-based employees could be let go.

Claypool also canceled the long-standing practice of paying most of the employee’s share of their pensions. Under the so-called “pension pick-up” agreement, dating to the early 1980’s, CPS pays 7 percent of the 9 percent employee contribution.

Claypool can unilaterally eliminate the pension pick-up but instead proposed a two-year phase-out starting next year that would be paired with salary hikes in order to keep teachers approximately whole or slightly ahead. Without the new contract, Claypool’s only option is to eliminate the pension pickup all at once, which will automatically lower teacher paychecks as early as mid-march.

CTU’s response to the escalating crisis was to send out an angry letter to members explaining why they rejected the deal. The letter doesn’t explain that teachers are getting “cost-of-living” raises of more than 9 percent over four years and another 5 percent to 6 percent overall in “step and lane” raises — given for years of service and credentials. Even with health care and pension give-backs, teachers net out with about a 5-percent raise over four years.

Instead, the letter starts out by saying that the union doesn’t “trust” the board to fulfill its promises. Notably, it mentions the board’s decision to rescind a 2011 salary hike — a five-year-old decision made by a different board and CEO.

The union letter also complains that through natural attrition and retirements, staffing levels could be reduced causing a “massive spike in class sizes.” Hyperbole aside, this is kind of like complaining that if a rainstorm comes we might get wet.

The whole point of the contract is to give management the flexibility to adjust staffing levels, especially in low-enrollment schools with unsustainably small class sizes and bloated administrative offices, in order to lower costs. The notion that CPS simply wants “massive” class sizes is silly.

The whole point of the early retirement incentive, which is voluntary of course, is to replace higher-paid employees near the end of their careers with newer, less expensive employees and to use those savings to fund higher salaries for the rest of the teachers. No one is required to take it. That’s why it’s called an “offer.”

Moreover, CTU President Karen Lewis specifically asked for the early retirement package because many of her older members have hit the top of the pay scale and won’t qualify for step and lane raises.

The CTU letter closes with a renewed call for a “walk-in” on February 17 — yet another display of union muscle at a time when calm heads and some sense of shared responsibility is needed. A follow-up page includes a summary of the terms, but even this is confusing and misleading.

In a democratic organization, the people most affected should have the last word. In this case, that’s the teachers and they deserve to know the facts.

Peter Cunningham is executive director of Education Post, a Chicago-based non-profit communications organization promoting education reform.

This op-ed was edited to reflect corrected data supplied by the author following publication.