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Busted priorities 

Even with a teachers’ strike looming, the city is investing in the wrong things.

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click to enlarge Chicago Teachers Union leaders Stacy Davis Gates and Jesse Sharkey - COURTESY CHICAGO TEACHERS UNION
  • Chicago Teachers Union leaders Stacy Davis Gates and Jesse Sharkey
  • courtesy chicago teachers union

One of the saddest things about the pending Chicago Teachers Union strike is how the CTU has to try to force Mayor Lori Lightfoot to hire more social workers, librarians, and nurses—and lower class sizes.

She should have done that from day one, paid for with the $2.4 billion earmarked for the two latest TIF bonanzas, Lincoln Yards and the 78.

Think about it—Mayor Lightfoot sent lawyers to court to protect the Lincoln Yards TIF deal. Now she's got her negotiators fighting attempts to contractually guarantee the hiring of more school nurses, librarians, and other employees.

Apparently, contractually pledging to help students who need it the most remains a little too radical for Chicago. And so here we are on the eve of another teachers' strike.

Before I get to the details, a few words about the 2012 strike. Contrary to what you may have seen or heard, corporate, civic, and editorial Chicago were against that one too, often employing the same language to make their case.

As exhibit A, consider these two statements from Sun-Times editorials and tell me which one is from 2012 and which one was written just a few days ago.

Statement one: "Despite the flame-throwing by the Chicago Teachers Union, a fair settlement is within reach—and it's largely up to the union to make it happen."

Statement two: "Take the deal, CTU. You've already won. Lucky you."

The first statement was written in 2012, the second last week. Unless it's the other way around. Who can tell? The message is the same—shut up, take the money, and do what you're told.

As always, there's also a chorus or two of "I love the teachers but hate their union." Or, as the Tribune editorialists wrote: "Teachers, don't be goaded by your strike-hungry union leaders into a walkout."

The villains of the day are CTU leaders Jesse Sharkey and Stacy Davis Gates—especially Davis Gates. You should hear all the mean, nasty things people tell me about her. It's like she's Rasputin and the teachers of Chicago have fallen under a trance.

Of course, people said the same sorts of things about Karen Lewis, CTU president during the 2012 strike. Now, even the Tribune seems to love her. You know how that goes: people love the rabble-rousers after they've left the scene. The same thing happened with Muhammad Ali.

OK, let's get down to the basics. Apparently, the most contentious issue in this dispute is not salaries—though both sides are always willing to argue over that—but "wraparound" employees, that is, the nurses, social workers, psychologists, counselors, librarians, and so forth that any civilized school system should provide every school with.

Even the Sun-Times and Tribune agree we don't have enough of them, especially in low-income south- and west-side schools where parents don't have the discretionary money to hire employees through donations like parents in many relatively well-to-do north-side schools.

State law prohibits Chicago's teachers from striking over things like class size and wraparound employees. Basically, CTU can only strike over pay issues.

That strike limitation was part of the so-called school reform bill of 1995 in which control over Chicago Public Schools was given to the mayor, including the right to appoint the school board.

There's a reason Mayor Lightfoot keeps emphasizing the 16 percent raise over five years she's offering teachers. Or, as she puts it, "that's real dough."

She knows CTU can't make too big an issue out of class size and wraparound employees. She's got the union in a bit of a box and she knows it. I never said the new mayor wasn't smart.

The union wants Lightfoot to relinquish complete control of the purse strings by contractually stipulating a certain number of nurses, counselors, and librarians per student or per school.

If CPS fell below those job targets, the union could take the district to arbitration and force officials to do what they don't want to do—hire more employees. That's how it works in most suburban school systems.

Mayor Lightfoot's negotiators are fighting against contract mandates for wraparound employees. Why? Probably the same reason she had her lawyers fight against the Lincoln Yards lawsuit filed by Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education and the Grassroots Collaborative.

The mayor doesn't want citizen activists dictating how she spends her tax increment financing dollars. And she doesn't want a CTU contract dictating how she spends school dollars.

Control over money is power, and Mayor Lightfoot—like Emanuel and Daley—doesn't want to give that up. Even if that means students—especially those in low-income communities—do without the basics. Like a nurse. Or a librarian.

To her credit, Lightfoot says she intends to hire more nurses and librarians—she even claims to have the money slotted for next year's budget.

But you know how it goes with budget promises. There's a big difference between budgeting for a librarian and actually hiring one.

Mayors have a funny way of not filling job vacancies—that way they can earmark money for the jobs but spend it on something else.

Not saying that Mayor Lightfoot would do that. Just saying—she could. Unless, of course, the jobs are baked into the teachers' contract.

In its editorial, the Sun-Times defended the mayor's position, writing: "No manager worth his or her salt can agree to write everything—especially matters well beyond salaries and benefits—into a union contract."

I like to point out that Sterling Bay—the developer of Lincoln Yards—has, among other things, $25 million written into its agreement with the city to pay for "legal and marketing."

That $25 million could help pay for a few nurses and librarians.

If contractually enforced mandates are good enough for Sterling Bay's lawyers and flacks, they should be good enough for school nurses and librarians for our children. But our priorities are all messed up.   v

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