Politicians Shift Blame to Chicago Teachers for a School Funding and Pension Crisis

It is really, really hard to parse out the problems in the Chicago Public Schools less than a month from the beginning of the school year. What is clear is that all the years of financial shenanigans in the school district’s management including long-running borrowing from the teachers’ pension fund to pay for the district’s operating expenses, and the budget crisis in Illinois as Governor Bruce Rauner made the state go through last fiscal year without a budget, and the rapid expansion of a charter school sector that has sucked even more students (and state aid) out of neighborhood schools in a school district with an already declining population—all this—is falling on the backs of school teachers. They have been working without a contract for a year and they want a reasonable raise.  And 500 of them just got laid off because school budgets have been cut across the board.

Here is Chicago Sun-Times’ reporter Andy Grimm summarizing the problem: “The financial woes of the Chicago Public schools ha(ve) provided the city’s principals with a deep pool of experienced applicants for teaching jobs.  CPS last week sent layoff notices to 500 teachers as principals across the cash-strapped district cut their budgets for the (2016-2017) school year. Another 500-plus non-teaching staff were also laid off. Social studies teacher Robert DiPrima carried a sheaf of resumes—and a heavy heart—to a CPS job fair…. His talks with principals were encouraging, but DiPrima still was shocked at being cut from the faculty at Jane Addams Elementary after 16 years at the South Side school… District officials have said they expect many of the teachers who lost jobs at one school will find new spots among the 1,000 teacher vacancies expected across the district… The budget crunch in CPS makes DiPrima wonder if, despite his master’s degree and National Board certification, his experience wouldn’t be a liability when budget-conscious principals are weighing him against younger candidates who are lower on the CPS pay scale.”

Part of all this, of course, is a threat to make the Chicago Teachers Union agree to a contract with teachers’ accepting a major sacrifice to keep the district afloat. The union and the district are in the midst of contract negotiations. Juan Perez, writing for the Chicago Tribune, explained the implicit threat last week: “Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool on Tuesday warned that cuts to the classroom would be necessary if teachers don’t agree to concessions in a new contract. Claypool ratcheted up pressure on the Chicago Teachers Union a day after the district unveiled a budget that assumes teachers will accept contract terms similar to those that were rejected in February by a union bargaining team. ‘The alternative is cuts to the classroom,’ Claypool said during a meeting with the Tribune Editorial Board. ‘We don’t believe its the right thing to do, and we’re hopeful that upon reflection the teachers union will understand that’s not the right thing to do either.’ Claypool said classroom budgets would be cut if state lawmakers don’t come through with $215 million to prop up the district’s budget. That money hinges on agreement on pension reforms in Springfield.”

The Chicago Teachers Union turned down a contract last winter that would have provided a raise for teachers and at the same time seized back much of that raise to increase the teachers’ contributions to their own pensions. The district is now again presenting to teachers the same terms they have previously rejected. The union has threatened to strike. Added to all this is a real financial crisis, according to Perez: “The district said its proposed operating budget is $232 million smaller than last year’s and covers a $300 million shortfall that still existed after the state passed education funding measures in June.”

The teachers’ pension fund has been in crisis for years, and it is clear that the pension crisis is not the fault of the teachers, who have paid their individual contributions. Last summer, Maureen Kelleher, writing for Catalyst Chicago, explained that it stems from 1995, when the state created mayoral control that included sweeping financial changes: “The biggest revenue shift came from combining several property tax levies—including one earmarked to pay for teacher pensions—into one fund that could be used to pay current operating expenses. That year, $62.2 million was diverted from pension payments to operating expenses.”  And the school district has persistently failed to pay its full contribution to the fund and diverted pension funds for school operating expenses—basically borrowing out of the teachers’ pensions to run the district.  Last summer Kelleher concluded that unfunded liabilities in the pension fund totaled $10 billion.

There is no doubt that the state—which is known for an inequitable school funding formula that fails adequately to fund the school districts serving many children in poverty—is at fault.  There is no doubt that there are massive problems in the pension fund.  There is no doubt that the school district has been further undermined by children carrying funding to charter schools while the traditional public schools are left to provide expensive services for English learners, children experiencing deep poverty, and students with serious disabilities.

Salaries in any school district make up 80 percent or more of the budget.  What is very sad is that politicians in Springfield and the Chicago mayor and his appointed school district manager find it convenient once again to blame teachers, lay off teachers, and threaten not to pay for the teachers’ services to Chicago’s children. Layoffs in August leave almost no time for those who have been riffed to find new jobs. Widespread layoffs undermine relationships and weaken school climate. Even if laid-off staff are picked up by other principals, the churn within the teaching staff will make it difficult for principals to create a collaborative and supportive school culture. All of this destabilizes relationships between teachers and students and families.

The narrative of financial crisis in the Chicago schools has been turned by everyone into an attack on the school teachers who have chosen to support themselves and their families by teaching Chicago’s children.