By Juan Perez Jr.
One day after the Chicago Teachers Union rejected a contract proposal from Chicago Public Schools, district officials said they would slash school budgets and stop paying the bulk of teachers' pension contributions -- moves CTU's president quickly blasted as "an act of war."
CPS officials told reporters of their plans while announcing the district would make a fresh attempt Wednesday to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars to keep the school system's finances afloat.
"Every one of us is disappointed by yesterday's outcome," Chicago Board of Education President Frank Clark said of the union's decision to turn down the district's proposal, which he nonetheless called the "foundation" of a potential deal.
"I believed this represented a compromise in the truest sense of the word," Clark said.
District CEO Forrest Claypool said a CTU bargaining team's vote to reject the offer was "disheartening" and left the district with no choice but to cut student-based funding.
Claypool said he wanted the cuts to be implemented "as quickly as practicable," a directive that left principals scrambling to determine how the cuts will affect their schools. While Claypool said the cuts to school budgets would amount to $100 million, CPS later issued materials saying it would cut $75 million from school budgets this year, and that those cuts would be mitigated by the availability of $41 million in federal grant money.
"This was something I had hoped to avoid at all costs," Claypool told reporters of school budget cuts he said could affect teachers, support staff, school clerks and other workers.
"We'll do our very best to prevent teacher cuts, and we'll work with schools to keep class sizes small and prevent midyear disruptions, but it means school support staff will be disproportionately affected," Claypool said.
The practice of picking up a major share of pension contributions for teachers could end as soon as next month and would save $65 million this year, the district said.
CTU President Karen Lewis said the district's action was retaliatory and an attempt to coerce union members into signing on to a deal.
"We are certain that everyone who works in our public schools is facing a clear and present danger," Lewis said. The union scheduled a downtown rally Thursday afternoon to protest the district's moves.
"Due to their attack, we have no choice but to express our outrage at this latest act of war by rallying against CPS and the bankers who are siphoning off millions from our schools," Lewis said.
The union said it will file a charge with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board over the district's move to end the pension pickup.
"The pension pickup has been paid to Chicago educators for more than 30 years since it first entered our contract," CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said. "We consider it a legal obligation, and we consider eliminating it unilaterally to be breaking the law -- and we will act accordingly if they do that."
Despite the heated rhetoric, school and union officials suggested a deal to replace a contract that expired June 30 could still be reached. Talks have reached the final stage of negotiations that must take place before a teachers strike could occur. An agreement could still occur during the fact-finding process, which goes on for up to 120 days.
In the meantime, Claypool said in a letter to union officials that the district "could no longer stay its hand in implementing significant cost-saving measures."
Claypool said CPS would end the pension pickup for CTU's members "no sooner than 30 days" after Tuesday's letter. He pointed to a provision in the contract that expired June 30 that said the practice "will not constitute a continuing element of compensation or benefit" after the contract's completion.
The pension pickup -- where CPS pays 7 percentage points worth of the 9 percent pension contribution required of teachers and many staff members -- has been a point of contention for many months.
Under the district's latest offer, CPS would winnow its share to 3.5 percentage points this year and phase the practice out by summer 2017. Last year, the district ended the pension pickup for its nonunion workers.
The district announced the cuts before a renewed effort to go to market on a long-planned bond deal, which school officials had put on hold last week. The district scaled back the size of the deal to $875 million. If the deal goes through, CPS is expected to pay extremely high interest rates because of its junk bond rating.
"We'll work with the market," Claypool said. "We may do more, we may do less depending on market conditions."
Claypool said concerns that the district couldn't find enough investors willing to buy its debt were "not correct," but did not elaborate on the reason for the delay.
"We have strong interest from investors, and we're going to go into market tomorrow," Claypool said when asked if the district had enough investors to advance the deal.
District officials said decisions on how to cut spending at schools would largely fall to the judgment of individual principals. Principals said they were briefed by district officials Tuesday on the terms of the rejected proposal to CTU and told they would get more details on how schools would be affected by cuts in the coming days.
Principals interviewed Tuesday worried any teacher layoffs could require schools to reprogram their curriculum with only days' notice.
"We do not yet know what % cut each school will face," Ethan Netterstrom, principal of Skinner North elementary school, wrote in an email to parents.
"I wish I could tell you more at this time but we simply do not know yet," Netterstrom wrote. "We were told to expect more information in 48 hours."
Claypool said the district "would be thrilled" to reverse course on the planned cuts.
"I would be the happiest guy around if next week we had an agreement with the teachers union and we could rescind the process on these steps," he said.
"We do not want to take these steps. We're still hopeful that we can reach an agreement with the union, but we have reached the point where we can no longer delay taking the administrative actions necessary to realize these savings, given the threat to our district from this massive budget deficit."
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