Rahm threatens mass teacher layoffs

September 30, 2015

Nicole Colson reports on the contract battle ahead for the Chicago Teachers Union.

THE SCHOOL year is barely underway, and Chicago's elite seem intent on detonating an explosive public schools crisis and forcing a showdown with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).

That's what will happen if Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Co. follow through on a threat to lay off thousands of teachers in the middle of the school year if the state of Illinois doesn't come up with hundreds of millions of dollars in needed funding for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS).

In mid-September, Forrest Claypool, the new CEO of CPS, who took over after his predecessor resigned amid a federal investigation, announced the threatened layoffs, even as Emanuel unveiled a city budget that includes $588 million in property tax increases and a host of other fees that will disproportionately hit Chicago's working-class and poor residents.

If the city doesn't get $480 million in funding help from the state that was built into the current CPS budget--what the CTU has called "fake funding" since it was never guaranteed by the state and hasn't materialized--up to 5,000 teachers could get layoff notices starting in November, Claypool warned.

Chicago teachers rally for fully funded schools
Chicago teachers rally for fully funded schools

"We're hopeful, but the truth is that if Springfield doesn't act, then we have to act," Claypool told a local radio station talk show.

THE LAYOFF threat is designed to ramp up pressure on the CTU to capitulate to the city's current demand for a 7 percent pay cut. Emanuel wants to cover the city's obligations to pay into the teachers' pension fund by forcing the CTU to take the pay cut in exchange for his promise to devote $170 million of the property tax increase to teacher pensions--as long as the state agrees to pick up "normal" pension costs.

This comes amid contract negotiations in which CPS has already demanded massive cuts. The current CTU contract expired June 30, and on July 1, the Board of Education announced $200 million in budget cuts and 1,400 layoffs to start the school year--on top of demands for hundreds of millions of dollars in concessions from the CTU.

Special education services were hit especially hard in those cuts--according to a new report from the CTU, the slashing of more than 700 positions and over $40 million from the special education budget has left services for many of Chicago's most vulnerable students and the public schools that disproportionately serve them "in a crisis." The CTU report details:

how the loss of paraprofessional supports has made it impossible to meet critical accommodations for students; how the lack of special education teachers have meant more students with disabilities pushed into oversized general education classrooms without the supports outlined in their IEPs [individualized education programs]; and how school staff has been forced to give up essential prep time in order to cover for the scheduling holes that the district's budget cuts have created...

The district's approach toward special education has a lot in common with its approach to the mass school closings in 2013, where it used a blunt metric for assessing buildings as a stand-in for the real-world usages that diverse communities have for their schools. The district views special education provision as a matter of just hitting the right measures, so they substitute "achievement gap" language for meeting students' individualized needs; view "inclusion" as something to immediately implement rather than as a process to support; and let blunt metrics like staffing ratios determine how to "right-size" special education from the top down, instead of working to support the resource-need established in the IEPs by the student, family members and professional teams. This commonality is no coincidence--this top-down approach permeates every policy change in CPS.

AS THE CTU also notes, the mayor, the City Council and school officials have systematically underfunded both the operating budget of the schools and the teachers' pension fund--rendering CPS "broke on purpose," as union puts it.

Emanuel's proposed budget doesn't begin to account for his administration's massive waste, according to the CTU. For example, Chicago has stubbornly refused to follow other cities in suing banks to recoup losses tied to toxic interest rate swaps--perhaps a consequence of the friends Emanuel made during his short time making big bucks as a banker.

Then there's the tens of millions in school contracts gone bad. Emanuel's administration approved $20 million in no-bid contracts for a "principal-training academy" called SUPES--the scandal that forced out Claypool's predecessor--and a $200 million maintenance contract with Aramark that has resulted in mass layoffs and dirty schools.

As one CTU member wrote in Socialist Worker in July:

The union has, for many years now, been pointing to solutions for increasing revenue to cover shortfalls--like reform of the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) system that gives the mayor control over a personal slush fund of development funds and renegotiating CPS's toxic bank deals that have cost the school district tens of millions of dollars.

Instead, the BoE continues to pursue policies that seem intentionally designed to worsen the crisis in funding for public schools, while channeling more resources to banks and privatizers.

If the layoffs did go into effect, they would have a drastic impact--not only on the lives of the teachers who got pink slips, but on working-class and poor Chicago families and students. Class sizes would increase, some grade levels would be combined, after-school programs would be gutted, and many students would have to switch teachers in the middle of the year. Virtually every student in every school in the city would be effected in some way by massive reprogramming, carried out in the middle of the school year.

It's a harsh attack--but Chicago teachers have stood up to Rahm in the past, and they are continuing to fight now, even as Emanuel's administration tries to force the union into a bad contract.

Forrest Claypool was installed as schools CEO to do Emanuel's bidding, further complicating contract negotiations. As CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said on WTTW's Chicago Tonight show:

[O]ver the course of the summer, we thought that we were close to getting a one-year deal, which would have allowed for a pay freeze, in exchange for which teachers wanted some assurances that some of the qualities of school we really care about weren't going to be cut, weren't going to be slashed...And within a couple days of Forrest Claypool coming in, that one-year proposal was taken off the table and removed. Now we're back at the drawing board with a proposal that would call for a 7 percent cut in teacher's compensation.

With Emanuel attempting to shift the burden onto teachers yet again, it will be up to teachers and their supporters to stand strong in fighting for the schools that Chicago's students deserve.

As Sharkey warned, CTU members "have good voices, and we have good feet, and we will use them both to make sure the public interest in the public schools are safeguarded in this time of financial crisis."

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