CTU to Blame for CPS School Closings

The Chicago Teachers Union is directly responsible for the closing of about 50 Chicago elementary schools announced today.

When the CTU handily defeated Mayor Emanuel and his negotiators in September, they protected their member's from the CPS fiscal squeeze at the expense of the schools themselves and the families who attend them.

CTU negotiators knew the deal they were making. Veteran teachers would retain all their pay, benefits, pension and privileges in exchange for closing some schools (primarily in low income, minority neighborhoods) and firing dozens of teachers, most of whom would be relatively new hires.

The proof that CTU knew their deal would require school closings is that the last 48 hours of negotiations centered on how union teachers who got laid off would be handled when and if new CPS openings became available in the future.

Both CPS and the CTU knew today’s news was coming when they inked the collective bargaining agreement in September.

The fiscal squeeze that predicated the contentious negotiation has been created by a series of terrible collective bargaining agreements and changing city demographics.

Fewer people live in Chicago now than did in 1920. Many families with school-age children migrated away from Chicago in the past 20 years alone.

Declining family populations not only mean fewer children enroll in public schools, but also mean lower property values and fewer property owners to pay the taxes that support the neighborhood public school system.

Despite regular increases in the Cook County property tax rate, CPS revenue from local property taxes have barely kept up with the rate of inflation let alone the rate of payroll, pension, health care and building maintenance expenses.

Consider that in fiscal year 2000, CPS revenue from property taxes was approximately $1.4 billion. The FY 2013 budget estimates $2.1 billion in property tax revenue for CPS. This marks a 50% increase in property tax revenue for CPS in just 13 years. However, if we adjust for inflation, $1.4 billion in 2000 equals about $1.9 billion in 2013. Thus, despite numerous property tax increases on Chicago property owners in that 13 year period, CPS income from property taxes is now merely $200 million more than it would have been if it grew at the rate of inflation despite all those tax hikes.

The rate of Chicago middle class incomes have not kept up with inflation so these tax rates were increasing on families whose income was not keeping up with ordinary living expenses let along tax hikes. For some, the burden of higher taxes, a worsening local job market and growing personal debt, drove them to seek gainful employment elsewhere in the country.

Now, look at the growth of payroll expenses within CPS. In 2000, CPS paid approximately $1.6 billion in salaries. By 2013, that number has increased to a little more than $2.66 billion even though there are 5,500 fewer teachers in the classroom now than there were then. The rate of salary growth far outpaces the rate of revenue growth, and it is made more remarkable considering the 19% reduction in active teachers on the payroll.

Between 2000 and 2013 the CPS contribution to pension funds and health insurance plans have increased by well over 100%, again rapidly outpacing any reasonable revenue growth expectations.

Sure we can blame the CTU for gaining such lavish collective bargaining packages, but can we blame the out-migration and changing demographics of the city on them as well? That depends on why the rate of exodus has increased. Since so many of those leaving Chicago are families from its residential communities, it is reasonable to assume that they leave because the conditions in their community have deteriorated to the point that they no longer want to raise a family there.

Parents want good schools for their children. The Chicago Teachers Union blocks any attempt to improve the quality of teachers in CPS classrooms, despite generally poor student outcomes that give parents pause about sending their child to the neighborhood school. Chicago parents see these scores and the roadblocks to reform from the CTU and quickly realize that if they want their children to get a good, comprehensive education, they either have to find money for private schools, cajole their way into selective enrollment schools, win a lottery for a charter school spot, or move to a school district that has consistently positive student outcomes. Since many middle income parents can't afford private school tuition, don't win charter lotteries and are rejected from selective enrollment schools, moving becomes a very viable alternative. They not only take theirs kids out of the local public school pool, but they take their tax dollars with them.

If parents had a choice in which school their child attended and had the power to hold teachers and principals accountable, perhaps fewer would see the need to move away from the life long hometown.

The only proposals the Chicago Teachers Union support are the very tactics that have already caused families to leave the city, exacerbating the demographic and tax revenue problem.

The Chicago Teachers Union representatives are savvy people, looking out for their membership. They know the CPS budget is a mess and the future is bleak. Going into the debates last fall, they knew their pension fund was among the worst funded in the nation. They knew the CPS revenue was being hampered by out-migration, declining property tax revenue and unreliable state and federal funding. They knew CPS expenses on pensions and health care were spiraling out of control. With the fiscal landscape this dire, something was going to have to give.

Of course, the CTU's first choice is to get more revenue for the CPS system from property tax payers and state tax revenue. However, in a city and state that have been so poorly managed for so long, an increase in taxes will only further hurt the economic condition of families who are already on the edge of having to relocate. As we have seen over the past decade, raising taxes and rates alone won't fix a fiscal crisis when expenses increase, like the 63% increase in payroll expenses for teacher salaries in just 13 years time.

The CTU budget experts knew that the day of budget reckoning was getting close as they entered negotiations last fall. They had to make a choice: Accept lower teacher salary increases and rework benefit packages to preserve schools and CPS teacher positions, or reject any compensation concession and let schools close and some CTU members get laid off.

They chose the later.

The CTU spread the good news to their membership in September that they weren't sacrificing anything on salaries and benefits.

Now, they have to feign outrage that the CPS will close 50+ schools and lay off teachers.

Today's closings are not only a consequence of the CTU collective bargaining agreement struck in September, but also an outcome that both CPS and CTU fully embraced at the end of negotiations.  Warning: this round of closings and consolidations is not the last as part of the deal and some could be catastrophic if the pension issue keeps getting put off.

If you want to blame CPS for these closings, fine. They are the ones who caved in to the CTU on the deal that forced these closures.

But before you point your finger at CPS, reserve some of your ire for the CTU. They traded good schools for good compensation.

I blame the Chicago Teachers Union for the school closings and I think you should to.

Now let's all put on red T-shirts and go protest outside their headquarters. Or perhaps parents will just protest with their feet, and join the migration to greener pastures and better quality schools outside Chicago.

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