Board gives Huberman power to increase class sizes

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Faced with a deficit projected to be at least $427 million, Board of
Education members gave unanimous approval at an emergency meeting on
Tuesday to resolutions that will allow CEO Ron Huberman to raise class
sizes to 35 students and still pay teacher raises promised in the union
contract.

Faced with a deficit projected to be at least $427 million, Board of Education members gave unanimous approval at an emergency meeting on Tuesday to resolutions that will allow CEO Ron Huberman to raise class sizes to 35 students and still pay teacher raises promised in the union contract.

These official actions were partly procedural, and partly a way for Huberman and the board to publicly and skillfully back the teachers union into a corner. Said Huberman, “The reality of the situation is that if concessions are not made, we will have to lay off teachers and raise class sizes.”

Over the past few months, Huberman’s team has asked the union to make a number of concessions, but besides forgoing the 4 percent salary increases, he did not specify what those were. He said the union has refused to bend.

Marilyn Stewart, the outgoing Chicago Teachers Union president, also declined to outline the concessions presented by Huberman’s team. “It is like someone showing you a menu and on it is your head,” she said.

Huberman has effectively taken away the union’s most powerful bargaining chip: the threat of a strike. Huberman could have recommended to the board that they pass a resolution stating the district doesn’t have enough money to pay the salary increase, therefore reopening the contract. The union could hit back with a strike threat.

But Huberman said he didn’t want to take that route because a strike would be de-stabilizing for students. (His decision also probably has something to do with the fact that Mayor Richard M. Daley is up for re-election in 2011.)

The CTU is barred from negotiating over class sizes and thus cannot strike over an increase, since state law prohibits a union from striking about something that isn’t subject to negotiation.

The union’s only option: Make concessions, or refuse and appear responsible for 2,700 teacher layoffs and ballooning classes. In an environment where unemployment is high and most workers are not getting raises, the teachers’ union also risks casting itself in an unsympathetic light.

Huberman and board members hope CTU officials see they are in a no-win position and give up something. Board President Mary Richardson-Lowry emphasized that the country and the state are in a financial crisis. These larger forces have left CPS in a hole, she said.

Huberman took pains to point out that other teacher unions, from San Diego to New York, have made concessions to avoid mass layoffs.

But Stewart and incoming CTU President Karen Lewis were not ready to start compromising. Lewis, who ran as head of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, or CORE, said there are other options. 

“This is a nuclear option,” she said. “I think we can do better.”

She said district officials could find money by scaling back contracts with consultants, spending less cash on assessments and shutting down a $60 million program that provides curriculum packages and coaching to high schools.

 

CORE members and other speakers also told Huberman that he should aggressively ask Daley to give the schools some of the tax increment financing money the city collects. Through TIFs, new property tax revenue is diverted from public schools and other taxing bodies to pay for neighborhood improvements, such as new sidewalks or lights, or developer subsidies, in the hope of attracting business to an area.

Local taxing bodies continue to divide up the amount of property tax collected before the TIF district was created. But new revenues are frozen for 23 years.

Published reports have said that CPS would be owed about $245 million more each year without Chicago’s TIFs. The TIF program has drawn increasing fire from grassroots education activists, given the schools budget crunch.

Huberman and board members, all of whom are appointed by Daley, did not address the TIF issue. Later, CPS Chief Financial Officer Diana Ferguson said CPS has benefited from TIF money in the past, but that it is reserved for capital projects. “It is a distraction because it is not going to help our operating budget,” she said.

 

The dichotomy between teacher raises and class size increases was the most contentious issue at the emergency board meeting. But other areas are threatened by the budget shortfall. Charter schools will most likely have their per-pupil allocation cut between 12 and 18 percent. Transportation, special education, bilingual education and extras for magnet programs are on the table.

Huberman stressed that he doesn’t know exactly how much he will have to cut because Gov. Pat Quinn has yet to sign the state budget. Also, the Legislature gave Quinn the power to make changes in the budget.

“This could be good for us or not so good,” Huberman said. Quinn could decide to keep education funding level, which would reduce CPS’ budget gap by $127 million, or make cuts.

Another big question mark is whether and when the state will pay out what it already owes CPS for this year. That amount now stands at more than $400 million, prompting Huberman to ask the board for the power to borrow $800 million. He explained it as a short-term loan that the district will pay back as soon as they get the money from the state.

Given all the uncertainty, some wondered why the board would hold an emergency meeting and pass these resolutions at this time. Huberman said that by law the district has to agree to pay teacher salaries by the June 15.