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How will city pay for teachers' new contract?

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Now that the Chicago teachers strike is over, the hard work of paying for the new contract begins. That could mean dozens of public schools in the city will be closed.

Chicago school board officials and leaders of the teachers union talked about those tough issues Thursday.

Nearly 80 percent of Chicago Teachers Union members who cast ballots voted to approve the new deal, the highest percentage for any CTU contract. It could be seen as a shot across the bow as yet another battle looms.

"Our campaign for a fair contract galvanized our members and has created a historic level of solidarity," said Karen Lewis, Chicago Teachers Union president.

The lopsided vote is also a vote of confidence in the union's leadership, which stands ready to fight again on the issue of school closures.

"Still have my boxing gloves," said Lewis.

On Thursday, school board president David Vitale said there are 135,000 more seats in CPS classrooms than necessary but declined to even estimate the number of schools that will have to go.

"There isn't today a specific quote number of schools. But the reality is we have to probably find a way to eliminate at least half of those 135,000 seats," said Vitale.

The new contract provides a 3 percent raise for teachers this year followed by 2 percent raises each of the next couple years. CPS will also pay hundreds of millions to hire new teachers for the longer school day.

"Taxpayers should be very worried. There's no money to pay for this contract. It's going to be roughly $295 million of more money," said John Tillman, Illinois Policy Institute.

That's on top of pension obligations soon to come due, adding to an estimated $1 billion deficit in 2014.

Despite a recent property tax hike, two ratings agencies recently downgraded CPS's debt.

Is a further property tax increase inevitable?

"Hard to say until we do the work," said Vitale. "I don't think we need to commit to additional property taxes."

That is why the issue of school closings has the union rattling sabers.

This week, 32 aldermen called on CPS to make public its plans moving forward.

"It would be our objective to engage everybody in the community, including the teachers union," said Vitale.

"The real test, though, is do the leaders want to come back together? Do they want to try and work in a constructive and collaborative way? And I think we're not going to know until we watch that play out a little bit," said Robin Steans, executive director, Advance Illinois.

The need to close schools goes well beyond the raises in this new contract, which the school board maintains it has the money to pay for. CPS plans to release those funding details in the coming week.

The public will have a chance to weigh in before the school board votes to ratify the contract later this month.

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chicago public schools, local, eric horng
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