Teachers react to School Board’s vote against raises

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As teachers wrapped up the school year on Thursday, some attended workshops or meetings; while others finalized grades or stuffed envelopes with report cards. But the light air that usually comes with the prospect of summer break was weighted with anxiety.

As teachers wrapped up the school year on Thursday, some attended workshops or meetings; while others finalized grades or stuffed envelopes with report cards. But the light air that usually comes with the prospect of summer break was weighted with anxiety.
Teachers stopped each other in the hallway or talked as they sorted paper, discussing the Board of Education’s decision on Wednesday not to pay the 4 percent raises they were promised in the current union contract. 
After the vote on Wednesday, board President David Vitale said he hoped the teachers wouldn’t see the decision as a sign of disrespect. The budget presentation that outlined the district’s projected $712 million deficit made it “pretty clear to [him]” that the board had to make that move. 
And Vitale said he hoped teachers would be understanding, even if they disagreed with the board’s decision.
The Chicago Teachers Union immediately fired back, sending a letter to the board saying they wanted to negotiate. At the moment, CTU, which controls the scenario of events, only wants to negotiate over the clause of the contract having to do with raises. But later, leadership could decide they want to reopen the entire contract and then, should an impasse occur, they could eventually vote to strike. A strike by the teachers union would be the first since 1987.
Spokeswoman Liz Brown said union leadership plans to talk to the membership to find out what they want to happen. 
Teachers interviewed at four schools expressed a variety of sentiments, from anger to hurt. Few saw the raises as the crux of the issue. Instead, they see the  decision as a message or a warning being sent to them from CPS leadership and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. 
Also, few believed that the board, if it really wanted to, couldn’t find the money to pay the raises–estimated to cost about $80 million. (Six other unions, representing everyone from building engineers to lunch ladies, also were told their raises won’t be funded. Those raises would cost the district an additional $20 million.) And many reiterated the statement of their union leadership that they would like to see more detail about the budget before agreeing to anything.
District officials and board members say they do plan on paying for step/lane increases for those teachers who are eligible, at a cost of about $35 million.
At Clemente High School in Humboldt Park, teachers looked on as construction started on rehab work. One remarked that this is the second straight year the school has been renovated. 
“Yet they don’t have money to pay our raises,” he said. Teachers at Clemente are concerned for other reasons too. The population of the school has dropped dramatically over the past few years, yet the district has started spending money on renovations. 
“Every one is worried that they are going to put a charter school in here,” said the teacher, who did not give his name. 
He said he believes that the real intention of the board vote is not to avoid giving teachers a raise, but rather to use the raises as a lever to get teachers to agree to teach longer hours.
“They want to make a deal,” he said. He noted that he doesn’t think it is a good tactic by the board. “Many of us work longer hours, but we would like to get paid for them,” he said.
Given the economic climate, Melissa Benkus, a preschool teacher for seven years, said she was happy to have a job and didn’t think the raises are something to strike over.  But she, like others, worries that if the teachers were to accept the board’s decision and go without a salary increase, it would set a precedent. 
“I don’t want it to cartwheel into something else,” she said. “I have no complaints about my salary now, but I don’t want to not get a raise year after year and then I am making less than I do now.”
Harry Zederman, a 20-year veteran, paused for a moment to eat tuna and crackers in his quiet 3rd-grade classroom. Zederman, who taught for a decade, then took a break and came back, participated in many strikes through the years and said that he thinks some of them were important in what they accomplished. Making conditions better for teachers ultimately makes conditions better for students, he said.
“But now they are all scared,” Zederman said. Yet even he didn’t think he would want to strike over the pay raises. 
“I would rather strike about class sizes, materials or more control for the principal,” he said.  
Zederman said he feels bad for the younger teachers who are under intense pressure to raise test scores and also don’t feel valued. 
While many teachers said they expected the outcome of the vote, they also said they felt stung. 
A union delegate at a North Side school said she looked forward to the raise. “We work very hard,” she said. “Teachers get here at 7:30 a.m. and leave at 5:30. The morale has changed because we don’t feel valued.”
Another group of teachers at another school said it is just one more blow in an environment where teachers suffer many. “It is beat up on the teacher time,” one of them said.
Sighing, she added that she feels so beat up that she “doesn’t have the energy to get angry.” If teachers were to strike, they would be seen as greedy and not interested in what’s best for children.
“So many of us are not up for the fight,” she said. 
Sitting next to her, tears rose in a young teacher’s eyes. A career changer, she said she took a pay cut to teach because she wanted to make a difference. And she’d never consider teaching in the suburbs.
“I just feel like we are being blamed for everything,” she said.