Lightfoot, CTU Trade Barbs Ahead of Teachers Strike

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union traded barbs Wednesday, pointing fingers at one another as the two sides failed to reach an agreement in contract negotiations that would avert a teachers strike.

Chicago Public Schools preemptively canceled all classes and activities for Thursday in anticipation of the strike, Lightfoot and district CEO Janice Jackson announced at a news conference early Wednesday in an effort to give families time to prepare and make other arrangements.

"At every turn, we've bent over backwards to meet the union's needs and deliver a contract that reflects our shared values and vision for our schools and the support of our students. Despite all this, the Chicago Teachers union intends to forge ahead with a strike," Lightfoot said.

But CTU's Vice President Stacy Davis-Gates refuted Lightfoot's claims in a separate news conference before the union's bargaining team continued negotiations.

"Her team, their strategy is to take back everything that we've already won in previous contracts and offer it back to us with percentages. Not what we have already, not what our students deserve or what we're demanding, but the same thing or less. That's the problem here - there is a gross disconnection between what she says and what's on the table," Davis-Gates said.

"It sounds infuriating because at least we get to have the truth," she continued. "One of the things that under-girds this process is integrity and to say you have offered a proposal that respects what we are asking for, to say that you've bent over backwards and it's the same proposal, not even, less than what's in there now - it's absolutely ridiculous."

Both sides remain at odds over things like class sizes, staffing shortages, affordable housing and the security of students in areas surrounding schools, among other issues.

Lightfoot said Wednesday that the district had offered over the course of negotiations "more than 80 proposed changes to the contract on issues requested by the union, including sanctuary school protections, a commitment against privatization, supports for oversize classes, changes in how we serve our special education students and so much more."

"So why don't we have a deal?" Lightfoot asked. "The union has told the public repeatedly that the two issues we need to resolve are class size and staffing and we have met their needs. But behind the scenes, they've continued to bring up additional bargaining issues that they say must be resolved before they can have a contract."

"For example, the union is still demanding to shorten instructional time by 30 minutes in the morning," Lightfoot said. "We won't do that. We will not cheat our children out of instructional time and I won't agree to any changes that do that."

Davis-Gates called Lightfoot's contention "ridiculous," asking, "Is that Rahm Emanuel's point for 2011 or 2012? This is 2019, that ship has sailed. What our teachers have said is stop robbing us. We don't have to work unpaid labor."

"Chicago Public Schools believes that our teachers should be sitting at their dining room tables on Saturdays and Sundays doing prep time for their classrooms Monday through Friday. Who says that?" she asked.

Lightfoot insisted that district officials had put provisions into writing in their latest proposal to put a nurse in every school, provide support for students experiencing homelessness and to reduce class sizes. Davis-Gates refuted her claims, saying, "It's just verbal. If they wrote it down, ask her to read it."

"Nothing has changed," Davis-Gates continued. "The offer is just let me copy what's already in the contract, let me paste it to a new sheet of paper and let me say that this is a worthy counter-proposal."

The two sides also appeared far from an agreement when it comes to school funding.

"CPS' finances are still recovering from the brink of insolvency and we do not have unlimited funds," Lightfoot said, contending that CTU had requested provisions that would add an additional $2.5 billion to CPS' annual budget. "Our offer to teachers and support staff is responsible for taxpayers. That's what a wholly independent fact finder, selected by the CTU, found in his report. CTU hasn't gotten the message."

"Agreeing to an extra $2.5 billion a year in costs would be completely irresponsible at any time but especially in the economic times we face now," Lightfoot said.

In countering Lightfoot's points about the city's finances, Davis-Gates spoke passionately.

"Let's talk about money," she said. "Let's talk about the billion dollars of extra revenue that they're getting form the state of Illinois. That billion dollars is supposed to lower class size. That billion dollars is supposed to provide us with nurses and social workers and counselors. That's what it's supposed to do, and it's awfully interesting to me that every time it comes to giving our students what they need in the Chicago Public Schools - which is a school district of 90% students of color, which is a school district that serves low income students - then we talk about money."

"We don't talk about money when we build playgrounds for the wealthy in Lincoln Park, which is one of the richest neighborhoods in the entire world," she continued, gesturing to the area surrounding CPS' headquarters in the Loop. "Look around us right now. Count how many buildings down here were built with taxpayer money. Count them. And then we're here begging and pleading."

"We are in one of the richest cities in one of the richest countries in the whole world where taxpayers have subsidized the development of skyscrapers but cannot give black children on the South Side lower class size," Davis-Gates added.

Calling the district's offer "the best in the Chicago Teachers Union history" in part for its 16% pay increase for all employees over the next five years, Lightfoot said union "isn't satisfied" when it comes to pay for teachers and support staff.

"They want to go back to wasteful practices like getting paid out for unused sick leave which will cost CPS $25 million a year, conservatively. We can't agree to that," Lightfoot said. Davis-Gates did not speak to that claim specifically, but said the union's position was to hold Lightfoot accountable.

"This team, our team of 40, we have been asking, begging, organizing, demanding the same thing for the last 10 years and she should know because her team, her campaign team, copy and pasted every single demand that we've put forth for the last 10 years into a campaign platform," Davis-Gates said.

One area in which the two sides appeared to agree? That it was unfortunate that negotiations stalled to the point of a strike.

"We should not be talking about a strike, we should be talking about a settlement, we should be having a celebratory press conference and moving the city forward," Davis-Gates said.

For her part, Lightfoot said her team was "proud of the progress" made at the table, adding that district officials would continue to negotiate every day.

"Our commitment is to do everything we can to keep this work stoppage as short as possible and ensure our students are back in school as soon as possible," she added. Lightfoot said she had offered repeatedly over the last month and a half to be personally involved in the negotiations but had yet to take part.

"They're not interested in having me there at the table," Lightfoot said. "And when they are, and when my team tells me that it would be productive, I'm absolutely willing to do it. I've said repeatedly, I'll clear the decks to get a deal done if there's a deal to be had."

CTU's bargaining team was scheduled to meet with its House of Delegates Wednesday afternoon, where they were all but certain to formally recommend that the union's rank-and-file members go on strike.

This will mark the union's second strike in 7 years, with more than 25,000 teachers and staff hitting the picket lines in the nation's third-largest school district.

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