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Rahm Emanuel defends decision to cancel 4 percent teacher raises

Mayor Rahm Emanuel holds press conference City Hall discuss Administration's progress during first 30 days Thursday June 16 2011. |

Mayor Rahm Emanuel holds press conference at City Hall and discuss the Administration's progress during the first 30 days, Thursday, June 16, 2011. | John H. White~Sun-Times.

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Updated: September 29, 2011 12:32AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Thursday defended the decision by his handpicked school board to cancel 4 percent pay raises for Chicago teachers, arguing that teachers have gotten two types of pay raises since 2003 while students got “the shaft.”

With a $712 million deficit, Emanuel said the Board of Education could not continue to honor a contract that satisfied everybody’s concerns but the only group that really matters: Chicago Public School students.

“Teachers got two types of pay raises. People in public life got labor peace. Can anybody explain to me what the children got? I know what everybody else got,” Emanuel said.

“Just a little north of 50 percent of our kids graduate. Our [test] scores haven’t moved. Yet, in all that time, not one additional minute of instructional time for the children of Chicago where they can be safe and learning. . . . Our future — which is what this is about, the mission of education — our children got the shaft. . . . I will not accept our children continuing to get the shaft.”

Even without the 4 percent increase, Emanuel noted that three-quarters of all Chicago Public School teachers will still get pay raises ranging from 1 to 5 percent for adding experience or for boosting their credentials.

He also pointed out that school administrators have had their pay frozen for the last two years.

“We will do everything we can to protect that classroom. Those are the North Stars. But I cannot in good conscience . . . continue an implicit understanding between parties that left our children on the side of the road. I won’t do that. Maybe they need somebody else to be mayor, but I will not do that,” he said.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis reacted angrily to the mayor’s comments.

“We have been working 50-, 60-hour weeks for years. We come in early and stay late. He has got to stop maligning teachers. None of that is true,” she said.

Lewis called Emanuel’s claim about kids getting the shaft a “lovely, lovely soundbite” that is equally untrue.

“If children have gotten the shaft from anything, it’s our system. This system needs some serious re-organization,” she said.

“What I suggest is we work toward getting the [tax increment financing] money that belongs to the schools and we talk about resourcing and revenue streams. As mayor, that should be his job instead of just repeating things that aren’t based on research or real evidence.”

On Wednesday, the school board met for the first time and fired a shot across the bow at the Chicago Teachers Union and other unionized school employees.

The board unanimously and unilaterally determined that the system did not have the money to cover the 4 percent pay raises tied to the teachers’ contract.

The teachers union responded by firing off a letter to the board saying it intended to negotiate the board’s decision instead of swallowing it. If unsuccessful, the negotiations — initially confined to the issue of pay — could force a reopening of the entire CTU contract or even lead to the first school strike since 1987.

Lewis has warned of a long summer with the potential for a strike looming over parents and students. That’s even though the new state law that paves the way for a longer school day and school year requires a 75 percent vote to authorize a strike.

Pressed Thursday on whether teachers are headed for a strike, Lewis said, “We certainly could be. Not following the contract certainly does open that up, doesn’t it?”

But Emanuel flatly denied that the board had broken the teachers’ contract. To the contrary, he argued that the board had honored that agreement to the letter.

“The contract calls for a vote by the board because economic situations change over the years. . . . It’s not just automatic. It’s actually what the contract calls for, which is a vote. The board took responsibility and was accountable,” he said.

“This is a situation inherited: $715 million deficit, one of the largest in CPS history. . . . I cannot wish it away. It is there. . . . You can’t keep doing things the same way and hope for a different result. It’s not possible.”

Asked whether he’s concerned about a strike, Emanuel said, “I don’t think that’s what’s necessary. I don’t think that’s what’s important. What’s important is remembering what your mission is. The mission is educating our children. And we have been cheating our children for the last decade.”

Asked what message the school board’s decision should send to other city unions, the mayor would only reiterate his promise not to “accept the status quo.”

He said he has asked city unions to “be at the table designing changes” to confront Chicago’s $700 million-a-year operating deficit.

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