Mayor Lori Lightfoot offers CPS teachers a 'significant' 14% pay raise, But the union says her proposal is 'not what it seems'

2019-07-03 | Chicago Tribune

July 04-- Jul. 4--Mayor Lori Lightfoot's new administration wants to offer the Chicago Teachers Union a five-year contract with what the mayor describes as "a significant pay raise" -- but time will tell whether the proposal is enough to settle a brewing dispute over a new deal for city public school educators.

Chicago Public Schools negotiators submitted a proposal that includes a 14% overall cost-of-living pay increase to be paid out over the course of a five-year deal that extends through the 2023-24 school year, which would cross over into a possible second term for the new mayor.

The offer, estimated to cost the city an extra $325 million, was delivered to a neutral fact-finder who is presiding over negotiations, as part of an ongoing legal process that still must cross several thresholds in the coming weeks before a teachers strike could occur.

The city's offer to teachers sticks to compensation, according to a city official who asked not to be identified, and does not address a host of other staffing and policy demands the union has included in its hopes for a new contract. Those items are still being negotiated, the source said.

Lightfoot called on the union to "come to the table with reasonable requests" in order to reach an agreement before the start of the coming school year. At an unrelated news conference by the lakefront, Lightfoot said her administration's offer is "a very robust and fair proposal to CTU and the various teachers and support staff that they represent."

"It's over $300 million, five-year contract, over the life of the contract it would represent a 14% increase. That's a pretty good offer," Lightfoot said. "I hope they will come to us with a serious evaluation of that and embrace the reality that there's no reason why we can't get a deal done well in advance of the time that school starts."

The CTU's contract expired last weekend, and union leaders have staged news conferences and rallies to pressure Lightfoot's administration at the bargaining table.

Union leaders lodged the outline of their first demands for a new contract in January -- including pay hikes and a host of topics state law bars the group from striking over.

Those past proposals included a 5% pay raise for union members. The union also is demanding maximum classroom sizes that range between 20 and 24 students in early grades, counselors for every 250 students, and librarians and nurses staffed at every school.

The union also wants the district to hire more teaching assistants for some early-grade classrooms, plus secure additional pay raises for the category of employees that includes those aides and school clerks. And, the union has called on CPS to boost the district's ranks of African American and Latino job applicants, and halt its outsourcing of school custodians from private contractors.

In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, CTU said it's considering the teacher contract proposals as an opening offer showing the school district and mayor "know they can afford educators' demands for fairness."

CTU President Jesse Sharkey said the mayor is "lowballing" the union.

"Contrary to Mayor Lightfoot's comments earlier this week, this is the first movement of any significance made by her office and Mayor Rahm Emanuel's bargaining team since the union first submitted our proposals six months ago," Sharkey said in a written statement. "We have yet to hear anything from them regarding the staffing of clinicians, counselors, social workers, nurses and librarians, affordable housing, class size, or the increase of trauma services and wraparound supports for our schools."

As the cost of living in Chicago has climbed, teachers and paraprofessionals have received average cost of living increases of 1.4 % per year, Sharkey's statement said.

Proposed health care increases of 0.5 % per year starting in 2022 would bring the proposals' value down by 1.5 %, Sharkey said. "Instead of 14 % over five years, it works out to be 12.5 % -- or an average 2.5 % increase per year. Add to that the 0.8 % health care increase they unilaterally pushed through in January, and their salary offer is even lower."

CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said there are 21 issues in close dispute between the city and the union and they have been submitted to the fact finder.

A report from the fact-finder is expected to arrive in August and unveil new details of the ongoing contract negotiations. Either side could reject the proposed settlement offered by the fact-finder, opening the door for teachers to strike after a several-week wait that's mandated by state law.

The union, though, has not yet scheduled a strike authorization vote from its members.

Like Sharkey, Davis Gates also disputed the city's characterization of the proposed raise for educators.

"The raise that is being offered is not what it seems," Davis Gates said.

Davis Gates said the mayor's proposal "is completely silent on school nurses, school social workers, school counselors .... special education ... it is silent on class size, it is silent on everything effectively."

Based on Lightfoot's platform while she was running for mayor, Davis Gates said, it seemed like those should have been the first things the two sides agreed on.

"It's kind of insulting that we have a person who would campaign on fairness, equity and justice, and her first offer is as disrespectful as this one is," Davis Gates said.

The union endorsed Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle against Lightfoot in the mayoral race and served as one of Preckwinkle's most outspoken surrogates during the campaign.

Davis Gates said a "reasonable offer" would to be ensure that schools are fully staffed and supported.

Davis-Gates and Sharkey both said there are notes of Lightfoot's vision that align with the union's platform but aren't evident in the proposals.

"Why does public education in this city -- a profession dominated by women -- routinely get undermined and disrespected?" Sharkey said.

Any final contract agreement will face scrutiny from credit ratings agencies with concerns about how growing CPS expenses will impact the district's mostly junk-rated bonds.

CPS credits a combination of increased state aid and city property tax revenue with helping stabilize the district's long-troubled finances.

But the system continues to rely on short-term loans for cash, while facing big and growing pension debts and dwindling enrollment. Spending more money on teacher salaries adds to the pressure.

"CPS has a relatively predictable cost structure, but its ability to reduce expenditures is constrained by strong union groups and growing fixed costs," Moody's Investors Service analysts concluded in a March report.

It's unclear there's political will to further raise taxes for CPS. The city counts a yawning budget gap and looming pension contribution spikes among its own budget woes for the coming years.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, meanwhile, said this week that Illinois cannot assume unfunded municipal pension liabilities because the state's credit rating would be reduced to junk status if it did.

jjperez@chicagotribune.com

gpratt@chicagotribune.com

hleone@chicagotribune.com