By Dawn Rhodes
The layoffs announced Monday by Chicago Public Schools -- 62 workers, 17 of them teachers -- were far milder than feared earlier in the school year, but the district's plan to end its longstanding practice of picking up pension costs for teachers led to a fresh strike threat from the Chicago Teachers Union.
"For them to say 'You can't go on strike, but we can make a unilateral change in terms of employment by way of a 7 percent pay cut,' that's just an outrageous violation of the way labor law works," CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said at an afternoon news conference. "And if they actually go through with it, you can prepare for a ... strike on April 1st."
The district said it filed a 30-day notice on the pension pickup in early February, but CPS chief Forrest Claypool declined on Monday to say when the system will stop picking up seven percentage points of the nine percent contribution required of teachers. The CTU's bargaining team earlier this month soundly rejected a contract proposal that included a phase-out of the pension pickup.
Talks to replace a contract that expired June 30 are in a phase called fact-finding that under state law must play out through late May before the union can strike. The union believes that timetable can be upended if the district reneges on the pension pickup promised in the last contract.
Of the 62 layoffs announced Monday, 19 affect part-time workers, according to the district, which employs about 37,400 people. No school lost more than one teacher except for Whitney Young High School, where two teachers are being let go.
Forty schools will be impacted by the cuts Twelve part-time aides are being eliminated, nearly all of them from Sutherland Elementary School in the Beverly neighborhood. The district also is laying off a handful of part- and full-time security officers, teacher assistants, school clerk assistants and guidance counselors assistants.
CPS began its fiscal year with a budget that relied on heavy borrowing and unpromised help from the state. Springfield has not responded and in February, CPS said it was reducing per-pupil spending and that principals would have to adjust their budgets accordingly.
"We're going to continue to protect our classroom and we're going to continue to whittle down the deficit as we wait for the state of Illinois and Gov. (Bruce) Rauner to finally wake up and realize that they are protecting a discriminatory funding system, penalizing not only kids in Chicago but poor, minority kids throughout the state of Illinois," Claypool said after a midday news conference.
Rauner said the district's woes are its own doing and continued to press his proposal for a state law that would allow CPS to declare bankruptcy.
"When I look at the numbers, I don't see an option. I either see bankruptcy or massive, massive property tax hikes on the people of Chicago," Rauner said Monday. "It'll be crushing for working families. Those tax hikes will be crushing for small business owners in this city. It will be devastating."
The district said it was cutting $85 million from school budgets but that the effect of the cuts totaled about $26 million to district-operated schools because of an infusion of state and federal money that is often directed toward schools with low-income students.
CPS for months has threatened drastic cuts and layoffs without action from Springfield. Sharkey accused school officials of using scare tactics and repeated the union's claim that the district is suffering "financial crisis by design."
"There's a very typical CPS pattern here, which is that Claypool makes a scary pronouncement about 5,000 teachers being laid off in November then over several months that number is whittled down," Sharkey said. "At this point, I think 17 (teacher) layoffs is face-saving ... in a kind of a perverse way, to say they at least laid off some people."
Claypool has denied ever threatening 5,000 layoffs. He has repeatedly said that it would take a combination of budget cuts including layoffs and borrowing, in addition to help from the CTU, to get through the year.
In January, CPS laid off 227 central office and administrative employees. More than 400 positions, including vacant jobs, were eliminated in that move, which the district said saved $32 million. The district last month borrowed $725 million in a deal that will be expensive to the district because of a high interest rate.
"In six months we've cut the deficit by 30 percent," Claypool said. "But we cannot cut our way out of this. We are buying time."
Chicago Tribune's Tony Briscoe, Kim Geiger and John Byrne contributed.
(c)2016 the Chicago Tribune