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Teachers Union Chief Calls CPS' $100M in School Cuts an 'Act of War'

By Ted Cox | February 2, 2016 3:45pm | Updated on February 2, 2016 4:26pm
 Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and Vice President Jesse Sharkey (r.) say CPS' actions could speed a teacher strike.
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and Vice President Jesse Sharkey (r.) say CPS' actions could speed a teacher strike.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

THE LOOP — Rebuffed by teachers who rejected a contract proposal Monday, the Chicago Public Schools chief announced $100 million in cuts Tuesday to take effect "as quickly as possible," while halting the so-called 7 percent pension pickup for teachers.

"We're gonna do our very best to avoid teacher layoffs," Chief Executive Officer Forrest Claypool said in a news conference at CPS headquarters. He added that the $100 million in school budget cuts meant support staff would be "disproportionately affected," and that individual principals would be consulted on the best ways to cut costs as the second semester begins Monday.

"This is something I'd hoped to avoid at all costs," Claypool said. "We do not want to do this. ... [But] we can no longer wait."

 CPS CEO Forrest Claypool said,
CPS CEO Forrest Claypool said, "We're gonna go our very best to avoid teacher layoffs."
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

According to Claypool, the cuts were necessary as CPS has not received an extra $480 million in funding the district budgeted for this school year even though it was never authorized by the General Assembly. Many of the cuts were targeted to take effect for the second semester beginning Monday.

"We all have to move with very deliberate haste," said CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner.

Combined with layoffs at the CPS Central Offices announced last month and other cuts, including a total annual pension reduction of $170 million, Claypool estimated the total worth at $320 million.

That includes a halt to the so-called pension pickup for teachers. CPS pays 7 percentage points of the 9 percent of pay teachers are obliged to contribute for their pensions. According to Bittner, the district also plays 9 percent as an employer contribution, or 16 percent points of the teachers' overall 18 percent contribution.

Claypool said halting the 7 percent pension pickup would save $130 million annually or $65 million for the rest of the school year. An additional $40 million a year would come from pension cuts for other staff.

Yet that's been a hot-button issue for teachers, with Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis calling it "strike-worthy."

Claypool said he had talked with Lewis earlier in the day and had warned her about the necessary new measures.

Yet the union issued a blistering response in a news conference at its Merchandise Mart offices immediately after the Claypool announcement. Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey called the cuts "a pressure tactic to get us to accept a deal that's bad for students and bad for the City of Chicago," as well as "an atrocity to education and extremely harmful to our schools." He estimated the move could cost 1,000 teachers their jobs.

"We won't be bullied," Lewis said, calling Claypool's announcement "an act of war" and adding that the union would file a complaint on unfair labor practices that could speed a teacher strike.

"If the board violates any labor law and makes unilateral changes, we will respond strongly and accordingly," Sharkey added.

Yet Claypool said he did not believe the cuts violate work rules that would allow teachers to go out on strike before the May 23 date projected as the earliest teachers could walk out following a 105-day "fact-finding" process in negotiations begun only this week.

Claypool and Board of Education President Frank Clark both announced their intention for the district to return to the bargaining table and hammer out a new contract with teachers.

"Every one of us is disappointed by yesterday's outcome," Clark said, after the union rejected the pact proposed by CPS. "While we're disappointed, we are not discouraged. We understand we have issues of trust."

Claypool echoed that, saying he found Monday's rejection "disheartening," but adding, "We are both committed to getting a deal done."

Without calling Tuesday's announced cuts a punishment, Claypool said it was his hope they would spur a new round of talks and negotiation, perhaps getting a deal done before the cuts and the halted pension pickup can be imposed.

Claypool also called a threat by Gov. Bruce Rauner to seize state control of CPS "ridiculous." He chided the state for its low funding level for education, calling it "more akin to Mississippi in the 1950s."

He said the district would go ahead Wednesday with an $875 million bond sale meant to address a massive budget shortfall. He insisted the bonds would be sold, saying, "We have strong interest from investors, and we're gonna go on the market tomorrow."

The union countered by calling a news conference for 10 a.m. Wednesday at Bank of America's headquarters at 135 S. LaSalle St. Lewis said the union will close its account at the bank, which it blames for "toxic swap" deals she said have cost the district hundreds of millions of dollars.

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