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Union president Karen Lewis wants to collaborate with CPS

Chicago Teacher's UniPresident Karen Lewis speaks with CPS CEO BarbarByrd-Bennett prior May 22 Board Educatimeeting where school closings were approved.

Chicago Teacher's Union President Karen Lewis speaks with CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett prior to the May 22 Board of Education meeting where school closings were approved. | Jessica Koscielniak ~ Sun-Times

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Updated: July 20, 2013 6:31AM

Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis said her union wants to collaborate with officials of budget-stricken Chicago Public Schools as part of an agenda for her second term as head of the 30,000-member group.

“We want to be partners in making Chicago’s school district one of the strongest in the nation,” Lewis told the well-heeled crowd Tuesday at the City Club of Chicago. “Parents, teachers and the administration working together: That is how you build trust. You don’t build it in CPS silos.”

CPS as a whole, is still too top down, Lewis said, citing an example of Montgomery County, Md., where district officials, the board, several employees’ unions and parents develop the budget and education plans for their children. “If we had a district-wide Local Schools Council and the Chicago Teachers Union, and the Principals Association, the SEIU support workers, parents and community all got together to make that budget, I bet it wouldn’t be $1 billion,” she said when asked whether the giant deficit touted by CPS was accurate.

And the district should pursue new sources of revenue — such as a new commuter tax, or ending corporate subsidies, she said.

Yet, she surprisingly cited a good working relationship with CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, saying the two spoke regularly on the telephone and had been collaborating to come up with a new high school model together despite her strong criticism of CPS.

With the deficit looming, CPS said it has cut central office spending by about $600 million since 2011 to keep cuts out of classrooms.

“We will continue to do everything possible to protect classroom investments,” CPS spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said in an email. “However, our first and most important priority to put CPS on a path toward financial stability — before any discussion of new revenues — is to achieve meaningful pension reform.”

The Board of Education has approved the closure of 50 schools, 48 during the next week, saying the cash-strapped district couldn’t afford to maintain so many buildings since it’s lost tens of thousands of students.

“Instead of having the distinction of having one of the best school districts in the nation or world, Chicago now has the distinction of having closed the most public schools in a single year in U.S. history,” Lewis said.

The CTU has been fighting the closures, calling for a moratorium, lobbying Springfield for an elected school board, and filing lawsuits in state and federal court accusing some of the school closings of being illegal.

Lewis, who started her speech with “I love baseball” and explained how a desire to become the first female major league pitcher taught her discipline and perseverance, ended on an analogy with the Cubs, who, despite a terrible record, continue to draw crowds.

“When the Cubs lose a game, they don’t call for Wrigley Field to close down. They don’t want the entire team dismantled. Despite empty seats, the stadium isn’t accused of being underutilized,” Lewis said. “Year after year, the fans continue to show up. We keep cheering for our Cubbies. We know they are winners. . .“Do the same for our children.”

Byrd-Bennett, at a separate speaking event hosted by the Chicago Tribune Tuesday, said she and Lewis have breakfast together every other week. She said they are likeminded many ways.

“The irony for me is, each time I have a conversation with Karen ... our vision for the future for kids and what this district could look like and how it should be is so on point and so parallel that it’s a little frightening sometimes, despite how it’s played out in the public,” she said.

Byrd-Bennett also said her office may experience additonal cuts.

“We’ll be taking another look at our own central office to determine where do we whittle down.”

Contributing: Mitch Dudek

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