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Chicago teachers best paid, or not, depending who you ask

Chicago Teachers Unimembers take streets while marching  CPS Headquarters. Wednesday May 22 2012.  | Scott Stewart~Chicago Sun-Times.

Chicago Teachers Union members take to the streets while marching to CPS Headquarters. Wednesday, May 22, 2012. | Scott Stewart~Chicago Sun-Times.

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Updated: August 17, 2012 6:18AM

Are Chicago teachers the best paid among America’s big cities?

The city that’s struggling to balance its budget would have you believe they are. The teachers’ union, which is tussling for higher pay for a longer workday, bumps Chicago down the list when it comes to total compensation.

They’ve been playing a numbers game that could end this week.

An independent arbiter is expected to issue his recommendations by Wednesday on how to resolve the dispute over the Chicago Teachers Union contract that expired June 30.

At the heart of the dispute is teacher pay. Teachers are asking for a 29 percent raise over two years, saying their typical school day is about to swell by about 10 percent and their school year by 10 more days — and Mayor Rahm Emanuel already stripped them of 4 percent raises this past school year that were in their contract. But the mayor and school board have offered 2 percent, saying the rest of the money can’t be found in a budget that already would drain CPS reserves.

If the parties cannot agree, the union is authorized, by a whopping 90 percent of its members, to strike.

Union and district officials have given fact-finder Edwin Benn teacher salary data from the country’s 10 largest cities showing what their teachers are paid.

Chicago, the third-largest district nationwide, does hover near the top of the salary list.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has definitively said that Chicago’s teachers earn more per hour of any of the largest city districts. And a memo from his office ranks Chicago teachers at No. 1 on the list not only on average, but also whether they’re starting or ending their careers.

Only the data shows that New York teachers top out with higher pay than their Second City counterparts. The Sun-Times compared teachers’ starting and ending salaries for bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees for the 2011-2012 school year.

Chicago offered the best starting cash — $50,777 to a teacher straight out of college and $54,080 to one with a master’s degree.

New York awards longevity pay to teachers after five years in city schools, rewarding them for staying put.

So a New York city teacher with a master’s degree could earn a maximum of $94,154 after 22 years of teaching in the district, compared with the maximum $82,899 salary earned by a Chicago teacher with the same degree after 25 years on the job.

For a 25-year veteran with a bachelor’s degree, Chicago paid $79,526; at its top end, New York paid $88,259.

In addition, the city picks up a 7 percent pension contribution on behalf of teachers. None of the other cities’ school districts includes a pension pickup.

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll declined to comment. Mayoral spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton said Chicago teachers’ salaries on average still were highest among the nation’s top 10 cities.

She would not comment on specifics like the inclusion of the pension pickup, saying, “We’re in the middle of negotiations now.”

Even with the pension pickup, the Chicago masters’ salary rose to $88,701, still less than New York.

Adding in all the benefits teachers receive, most notably health care, Chicago teachers drop to third or fourth, according to the Chicago Teachers Union.

For a starting college grad, Chicago ranked fourth behind New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. A starting teacher with a master’s degree was better paid in New York and Philadelphia owing to better benefits in those other cities, the union said.

The union announced Sunday that it will hold a special meeting about the arbitrator’s report and afterward announce whether it will accept or reject the recommendation. It indicated it will make a decision the same day it receives the recommendation.

Contributing: Rosalind Rossi

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