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Editorial: CPS pay freeze inevitable

Updated: August 3, 2011 9:46PM

Facing an estimated $712 million deficit, the new Chicago Board of Education cried uncle on Wednesday, voting for the first time in 20 years not to fund promised raises.

Now it’s time for Chicago teachers to stand up and accept reality.

Chicago teachers and the seven unions representing other school employee unions should accept the wage freeze or, at a minimum, try to negotiate less than the promised 4 percent raise.

Holding on to the pipe dream of getting that 4 percent raise — and risking a summer of uncertainty and a possible strike at the end — does no one, least of all Chicago students, any good.

The Board of Education simply has no more rabbits to pull from its budget hat.

We say that cautiously, knowing that CPS said much the same last year as it tried to persuade teachers to forgo their raise. And then, voila, CPS managed to fill its deficit without increasing class size or scaling back programs significantly.

But the big fixes available in the Great Recession years — including $364 million in extra federal dollars, $160 million in bond restructuring and $400 million in delayed pension payments — are gone.

Meanwhile, expenses are going up, including $100 million for raises for school employees.

The push for a wage freeze doesn’t mean teachers are overpaid. CPS officials implied that Wednesday when they said Chicago teacher pay ranks No. 1 or 2 among the country’s big cities. But compared with the suburbs — and that’s what CPS teachers really care about — Chicago high school teachers rank 71st in the state and elementary teachers rank 38th, according a recent Sun-Times analysis. The average CPS teacher makes $69,000.

But make no mistake: Chicago teachers have had it good while most workers in the public and private sector have not.

Chicago teachers for the last eight years have enjoyed healthy 4 percent annual raises, even as the economy tanked. Meanwhile, non-union CPS employees and principals went without raises and took as many as 15 furlough days.

And at least 74 percent of Chicago teachers will get a raise this fall no matter what.

On top of the 4 percent raise, most teachers get automatic raises for each extra year they work for CPS and get a salary bump for earning an advanced degree. The experience raises range from 1 to 5 percent, while degree raises average nearly 4 percent.

We know Chicago teachers have taken hits elsewhere. The city is underfunding their pension fund, a 2010 state law created less-generous pensions for new teachers and a state law signed Monday severely limits teachers’ right to strike. If the CTU fails to come to terms with CPS on the 4 percent raise, the door potentially opens to a strike. But effective Monday, 75 percent of all CTU members must approve a strike, up from 50 percent of those voting. The timing of Wednesday’s vote and Monday’s bill-signing is no coincidence.

But none of that makes a dent in CPS’ deficit — and that’s all that matters now.

The teachers union has until Monday to accept the wage freeze or demand wage negotiations with CPS. A quick and fair resolution, it’s worth noting, probably puts the CTU in a better position for upcoming negotiations with CPS over a longer school day.

Before Monday, CPS owes it to the CTU to hand over its budget documents, listen to union budget-cutting suggestions and explain what new revenue and cuts (besides the wage freeze) CPS is considering to fill its massive budget hole. CPS has already cut central office, but the school system is still rife with waste.

With a deficit this size, something has to give. It’s time for teachers to share in the sacrifice.

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