CHICAGO (CBS) — Hundreds of thousands of Chicago Public Schools students were back in class on Tuesday. While there’s a lot of excitement for the new school year, the threat of a teachers’ strike remains.
Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis juggled optimism and pessimism on the first day of classes for CPS, as she talked about the chances for a strike down the road.
Lewis visited King College Prep High School in the Bronzeville neighborhood on Tuesday as kids returned to school, and acknowledged a strike is possible down the line, as CTU and CPS have yet to agree on a new contact.
Teachers have been working without a contract for more than a year, and have been talking on a regular basis.
“These are complicated issues that will ultimately be solved,” Lewis said.
However, union leaders have confirmed they are discussing a potential strike next month.
Lewis said a major sticking point remains the 7 percent pension pickup the district wants to eliminate.
Since 1981, CPS has paid 7 of the 9 percent of salary teachers must pay toward their pension contributions. The district offered teachers the so-called “pension pickup” in lieu of raises CPS claimed it could not afford back then.
CPS Chief Executive Officer Forrest Claypool has said the pension pickup is out of whack, but Lewis said “he’s lying.”
“Take whatever he says with a grain of salt,” Lewis said.
She said some districts pick up as much as 10 percent.
“Over half of the districts in the state pick up the pension,” she said.
Lewis wasn’t giving odds on whether a strike would occur, but she said she has been telling teachers to be prepared.
“We always tell our members to prepare. I mean, because it’s ridiculous to not do that,” she said.
“We’re not close on some issues. We’re close on others,” Lewis added. “That’s why I say it’s really hard for me to tell you. People want a yes or no answer, and again it’s way more complicated than that.”
Further complicating matters is the CPS budget’s reliance on $215 million in new funding from the state, which might not materialize because of the ongoing dysfunction in Springfield.
As he welcomed students at Edwards Elementary School, Mayor Rahm Emanuel didn’t take strike-related questions, but Claypool was holding out hope a teacher walkout could be avoided.
“I think all we can do is be at the table every day, and we’re willing to be there every single day, around the clock if necessary, to get a deal,” he said.
The CTU house of delegates was scheduled to meet Wednesday evening to discuss the status of negotiations, and it’s possible delegates could set a strike date.