WebExtra: Teachers voice hopes for contract

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With just over a month until Chicago’s teacher contract expires, union members are closely watching incumbent Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart, who garnered 76 percent of the votes in last Friday’s elections, easily defeating longtime rival Debbie Lynch.

Stewart asserts that her wide margin of victory will send the district “a serious message” of unity as contract talks continue. At a May 21 victory press conference, she outlined her goals for the negotiations: pay raises, affordable health coverage, and increased job security.

Given cost and revenue projections by the CPS budget office, raises and relief on health care likely will hinge on a state tax increase, which has the Legislature and governor deadlocked.

The CTU has been negotiating with the Board since August, but the two sides have not yet reached agreement on any major issues. Amid the silence, teachers are forming their own expectations. Here are a few:

Jesse Sharkey

Social studies, Senn High

8 years in CPS

“The difficult thing about teaching in Chicago Public Schools right now is that the ground is changing underneath our feet,” Sharkey says. “Arne Duncan is on record as saying that the comprehensive high schools are a failure. … So it’s hard to know what our future looks like.”

While Sharkey wants to see a contract that addresses pay, working conditions and teachers’ “voice on the job,” he would also like to see the union enter into policymaking issues.

“I want the union to fight to make sure that the public schools are well-defended, are well-resourced, and the people that work in them are respected and have rights,” he says.

But he adds: “We all know that if the union comes back with 5 percent raises and the price of our health insurance triples, then that’s not a good contract.”

He says Stewart challenger Deborah Lynch likely lost because of the expectations that were raised, and then dashed, when, as president, she negotiated the current contract.

“It wasn’t the raises,” Sharkey says. “It was that people felt angered and under pressure because of the conditions that we work in. Our jobs can be stressful, dirty, hard and thankless. And the contract is the one time every few years that somebody says, ‘Let’s talk about the way you’d like your jobs to be.'”

Kelli Pfeiffer

7th-grade social studies, Daniel Boone Elementary

11 years in CPS

Pfeiffer says that a pay raise is the least of her concerns. She thinks teachers need to have at least one preparation period every day and lower class sizes.

“If we are accountable for jumping through all the hoops that the state and federal governments now want us to, we need to lower class size.”

Pfeiffer doesn’t like the idea of merit pay, which she says holds teachers accountable for “issues that are out my control,” like students’ home lives. The union is supporting a pilot CPS program that combines professional development with bonuses based on the academic progress of students.

Pfeiffer also worries about health care costs. “It’s getting ridiculous,” she says. “It cannot be a percentage of pay, because then every time you get a pay raise, you’re actually paying more.”

She sees a strike as a last resort. However, she cites health care and job security for probationary teachers as “big enough issues” to warrant a walkout.

Kevin Higgins

7th and 8th grade special education, Dever Elementary

14 years in CPS

“People talk about how the health care has eaten up our raise,” says Higgins. But he says it’s the increasing demands on teachers’ time that are eating up raises. “We’re not going to win a war with Daley over healthcare,” he adds.

He points to the IMPACT school management system, extra paperwork required by CPS, and the advent of progress reports, in addition to report cards.

With regard to prep periods, “you’re not going to get anywhere on that,” he says. “We have the tightest school day of anywhere in the United States. … I really don’t think more prep time is the answer.”

He also wants the union to do something to slow “the cascade of charter schools.” In his view, “they’re undermining the union, and they’re undermining education for Chicago Public Schools students.”

He believes that many important issues, such as curriculum, class size, assessments and school schedules, will be hashed out in the state legislature, not in contract talks.

“Modern labor is no longer this heavy-handed thug. … It’s really a streamlined lobbying group,” he says.

Mark Paye

English, Clemente High

7 years in CPS

Most teachers at Paye’s school are talking about health care and salary. But a 4 percent raise – the amount Lynch negotiated in the last contract, disappointing many teachers — would be all right with him. “I’m not really the type of person who worries about money a lot,” he says.

He feels the same about the length of the school day. “I would be OK having it be longer if it’s a decision that is made in the best interests of students,” he says. “Of course, if we have a longer day or a longer school year, teachers need to be compensated accordingly.”

Lowering class size should be a priority, he says. Currently, overcrowding complaints are referred to a panel for investigation; he would also like to see that change. Paye thinks teachers need a formal grievance procedure for overcrowded classrooms.

Jamie McDonald

3rd grade, Ella Flagg Young Elementary

More than 25 years in CPS

McDonald says that under Stewart’s leadership, the CTU has done an “extraordinary job” of listening to its membership. She appreciates the accessibility of Stewart’s team, which has held town hall meetings and visited hundreds of schools to talk about issues. This is especially important, she says, because many of the union’s current members have not experienced a strike or seen the union be visible in other ways.

When the union asked its members what results they would like to see from negotiations, she recommended a focus on increased job security, a better health benefits plan, and expanded prep periods for elementary teachers. A fair pay increase, she says, needs to keep pace with the cost of living.

She also wants the district to address school safety issues and increase the number of crossing guards, although she believes families play an important role, too. “Parents should make a commitment to reducing the violence that the students may be exposed to, and that begins at home,” she says.

McDonald also says the Board has dragged its feet in bringing proposals to the bargaining table. She would like to see “a good faith effort” as talks move forward.