CHICAGO — Chicago teachers are expected to vote to authorize a strike next week after months of negotiations over teacher pay — and how much teachers will contribute to their pensions — have faltered.
The $5.4 billion Chicago Public Schools budget, adopted in August, relies on a contract proposal rejected by the union in February that would raise teachers' pay but require them to contribute more to their pensions.
With the debate set to begin in earnest after the strike authorization vote set for Sept. 21-23, here's what you need to know:
The median salary for nearly 18,000 teachers employed by CPS as of June was $78,169, according to an analysis of CPS data. Teachers get a median of $27,564 in benefits, including pension payments and insurance. The DNAinfo analysis excluded teachers who hold multiple part-time positions in one or more schools.
The four-year CPS contract proposal — based on a report compiled by an independent fact finder — includes an 8.75 percent increase in teachers' wages and a cap on new charter schools. It also offers "steps and lanes," automatic bumps in teacher pay that kick in with seniority and experience.
But the offer also includes the so-called "pension pickup," which would require teachers to contribute 9.4 percent of their salaries into their own pension fund.
"We remain open and willing to listen to any ideas that the [union] leadership presents," CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner wrote in an email.
By state law, 9.4 percent of teachers' yearly salaries has to be paid into their retirement fund. As of now, teachers put 2 percent of their salaries into their own pensions, while CPS "picks up" the other 7.4 percent.
Teachers do not contribute to and are not eligible for Social Security when they retire.
CPS leaders have said that having teachers pick up the full pension contribution would be a fair sacrifice, given the school system's dire financial situation.
"CPS’ continued objective is to give teachers a fair raise that works within our budget constraints, especially since we just passed a tight budget that included significant tax hikes on Chicago homeowners, central office staffing reductions and revenue from Springfield," Bittner said.
The proposed pay raise and "modest" new health care benefits "more than offset the gradual phaseout of the pension pickup," Bittner wrote.
CPS officials expect health care costs to rise 6 percent a year, but teachers would only pay an additional 1.5 percent toward health care premiums over the life of the contract, under the CPS proposal.
But Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has said any labor agreement that works out to a pay cut for teachers — as union officials contend the CPS contract proposal does — is dead on arrival.
CPS agreed to pay part of teachers' pension contribution in 1987 in place of a pay raise as part of contract negotiations.
The average retired teacher got a monthly pension payment of $4,210 last year, according to the Chicago Teachers' Pension Fund.
Union officials say teachers are not overpaid — nor are their pensions gold-plated.
"You need to compare teachers to people with similar jobs, responsibilities and education requirement," said Nathan Goldbaum, a coordinator for the Chicago Teachers Union. "If you compare the salaries of CPS teachers to others who are similar, it is much lower."
The average U.S. classroom teacher earned a salary of $57,379 during the 2014-15 school year, according to the National Education Association. In Illinois, the average was $60,124.
The CPS pay scale allows Chicago teachers to get paid more than their counterparts elsewhere, but not before putting in some time.
"The starting salary for a full-time teacher in CPS is extremely competitive versus surrounding districts and other large urban districts nationwide and helps our search for new teachers," Bittner said. "The rapid salary growth after a teacher's first year also helps in attracting new teachers to CPS."
CPS teachers have one of the highest starting salaries among the largest American school districts, Bittner said.
Five percent of CPS teachers earn a salary of $50,653, the baseline set for newly minted teachers with a bachelor's degree.
"Chicago is one of the best places to be a teacher, particularly based on salaries," Bittner said. "We support and recognize the hard work our teachers do, which is why we want to make sure that they’re fairly compensated and that this contract provides the most generous raise we can afford given our budget constraints."
In Illinois, 24 school districts — all in the Chicago suburbs — have a higher base teacher pay than CPS for first-year teachers with a bachelor's degree, according to state Board of Education data. The north suburban Glenbrook High School District leads the state with a minimum pay of $56,206.
Seven suburban districts have higher base pay at the top end of the scale, including south suburban Thornton Township, where salaries hit $86,530 after 13 years. North suburban New Trier pays first-year teachers $54,373, but the scale tops out after nine years at $70,685 for teachers with bachelor's degrees.
Teachers with master's degrees at New Trier could earn at least $118,750 after 20 years. For CPS teachers with a master's, the base pays cale tops out at $89,534 after 16 years.
Steps and lanes
CPS teachers with more advanced degrees get higher starting pay and are placed in different "lanes." All teachers are on the same "step" schedule, which provides increases in base salary each year for teachers for up to 16 years, although the schedule has been frozen since the contract expired last year.
Those "step" raises based on seniority are in addition to raises won in negotiations and range from about 1.4 percent to 4.1 percent for teachers with bachelor's degrees.
Teachers also get hourly pay for extracurricular work, such as coaching sports teams and leading after-school clubs.
Goldbaum said the current structure provides "objective criteria for a future career" for CPS teachers.
Goldbaum said the future of the pension pickup would have to be weighed against an increase in salary, with the desired result for the union "up to the negotiators."
"We're fighting for a system inspired to help young people," Goldbaum said.
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