Chicago to Hire More Teachers During Budget Crisis

Published August 17, 2012

Removing a major obstacle during contentious contract talks, Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union reached an agreement to lengthen students’ school day without lengthening most teachers’ workdays by hiring 477 new teachers.

Under the agreement, the elementary school day will lengthen from five hours and 45 minutes to seven hours in the country’s third-largest school district. Mayor Rahm Emanuel had proposed a 7.5-hour day. The high school day will lengthen from seven hours to seven and a half. The city previously had one of the shortest school years in the country.

This potential agreement hurts Mayor Emanuel’s ambitions for reforms at CPS,” said Ted Dabrowski, vice president of policy for the Illinois Policy Institute. “The way negotiations are going, he’ll get a longer school day staffed with teachers who aren’t qualified in the core subject areas, and he’ll need to come up with more than $50 million he doesn’t have. And he still faces salary negotiations with the existing teachers.”

CPS spends one and a half times the national average per pupil, at approximately $16,000. The district raided its reserves this summer to partially fill its $665 million budget deficit and $338 million in pension back payments, causing Standard & Poor’s Rating Services to downgrade the district’s bond rating from AA- to A+. This will mean an extra $1 to $2 million in extra interest payments for taxpayers in the coming year.

Five-Hour Workday
CPS agreed to increase teaching staff approximately 2 percent to fill the extra school time with more music, art, foreign language, and physical education classes instead of extending current teachers’ work days. Those teachers will be hired from staff laid off during the past three years.

This means elementary teachers will effectively work the same number of hours, which their contract limits to 296 minutes each day, or less than 5 hours per day. Non-core courses taught by newly hired teachers, lunch, and recess will fill out the seven-hour day.

High school teachers will work 14 more minutes, or just more than 5 hours, per day.  High school students will spend 46 more minutes per day in class four days per week, and on the fifth day they will leave school 75 minutes early.

“[The longer hours are] what our schools planned for, that’s what we promised, and that is what we have in this agreement,” said Chicago Public Schools spokesman Becky Carroll in a statement. Carroll promised School Reform News an interview, then refused several times to converse.

Salary Demands Loom
A recent arbitrator’s report recommended teacher salaries increase as much as 20 percent for the coming school year to reflect the longer day, which would cost approximately $330 million per year. Hiring additional teachers instead will cost CPS approximately $50 million. The average Chicago teacher earns $76,450, nearly a third more than the typical private sector worker in the surrounding Cook County. Teachers can retire at age 60 with an annual pension equal to 75 percent of their highest average salary.

CPS has not said where it will generate extra funds to pay for more teachers. CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey suggested cutting the city’s charter school budget. Emanuel rejected the idea, reaffirming his commitment to this version of parent choice, noting long student wait lists for charters.

CTU originally wanted a teacher salary increase of close to 30 percent over two years, which it later lowered to 25 percent. In response, CPS initially offered a 2 percent raise over the next two years, then extended that increase to four years.

Also unsettled is how to award teacher raises. The union wants higher pay for more years on the job and degrees, while district leaders want to institute a merit pay system.

Threat of Strike
Nearly 90 percent of the union’s members voted in June to authorize a strike if the district and union do not reach an agreement the members find satisfactory.  Most Chicago schools open September 4, but a third open as early as August 13. Talks between CPS and the CTU are scheduled for Labor Day weekend, but teachers could still strike as soon as August 18.

Statements by CTU President Karen Lewis suggest a strike is likely. On August 6, Lewis appeared on a Madison, Wisconsin, radio program and accused Emanuel of being a “bully.” She added that CTU teachers are fighting his “tyranny.”

Asked whether the CTU would strike, Lewis demurred, saying only that the union is preparing for the possibility.

“We expect there to be a large contingent of people from outside of Chicago supporting and helping” if the strike goes through, she said.

Even without a strike, the school-day agreement will not ease future negotiations, Dabroski said.

“This new plan doesn’t bode well for next year, when CPS will see a doubling in teacher retirement costs to levels exceeding $800 million,” he said. “The bottom line is this deal doesn’t benefit Chicago’s children or its taxpayers. This crisis is only beginning, and with the coffers empty at CPS, the negotiations will only get tougher.”

Image by Bartosz Brzezinski.