By Jayette Bolinski | Illinois Watchdog
SPRINGFIELD – Teachers and education dominated the news this week, as the first Chicago teachers strike in 25 years came to a close Wednesday.
Chicago public school teachers headed back to their classrooms Wednesday after seven days on the picket line over a contract dispute.
About 800 delegates for the Chicago Teachers Union voted to call off the strike, which began Sept. 10 and kept more than 400,000 students out of classrooms for more than a week. Parents were left in a lurch as they scrambled to arrange care for their children, many of whom live in dangerous neighborhoods and rely on schools to provide a safe place for students during the day.
Delegates for the union voted Tuesday to end the strike, but all members of the union must vote on the latest contract proposal in the coming weeks.
“We said we couldn’t solve all the problems … and it was time to suspend the strike,” CTU President Karen Lewis said at a news conference after the vote, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Contract negotiations between teachers and the city-run school district had been ongoing for months. Teachers initially sought a 30-percent salary hike over two years – something they said was needed because they are required to work longer school days this year.
However, the Chicago school district expects a $1 billion deficit next year, making such a bump virtually impossible.
Teachers had other demands, as well, that centered on a new teacher evaluation system, job security and conditions in the schools.
The latest tentative three-year contract proposal will cost about $74 million each year, according to the school district.
Chicago Public Schools, with more than 675 schools, is the nation’s third largest school district.
Teachers at Lake Forest High School headed back to the classroom Wednesday, too, after striking for five days over a salary dispute.
Lake Forest is a wealthy north Chicago suburb, with about 1,700 students at the high school. The student-to-teacher ratio at the high school is about 14 to 1, and only 4 percent of students are considered low income. Per-pupil spending is about $36,000 for each student.
While inner-city Chicago students were without instruction during the strike there, Lake Forest High students were in their classrooms Monday and Tuesday with substitute certified teachers, volunteers and other staffers.
That’s strike-breaking, plain and simple, said Charlie McBarron, spokesman for the Illinois Education Association, of which the Lake Forest teachers union is an affiliate. The school board’s claims that education took place during the strike were false, he said.
“Lake Forest High is a top-quality school because of its teachers. The board should stop pretending to educate students and, instead, offer teachers a fair contract,” he said. “The teachers want to be with the students. The board can make that happen. They should stop pretending and start negotiating.”
The state refused to count the two days of instruction as legal attendance days.
The school’s 150 teachers who had been on strike went back to their classrooms Wednesday after reaching a tentative contract agreement with the school district. Teachers had sought annual raises over three years of roughly 5 to 6 percent, but the school board offered raises of about 2 to 3 percent. Details of the agreement will not be released until after teachers vote on the contract next week, officials said.
The teachers’ union, the Lake Forest Education Association, said the school district could afford the raises because it has a fund balance that will grow by $20 million during the next three years, according to reports. Teacher pay was frozen under the previous contract, which expired June 30.
A new poll this week suggests expelled and indicted state Rep. Derrick Smith, a Chicago Democrat accused of taking a $7,000 bribe, may find himself back in his seat come January, even though his colleagues kicked him out Aug. 17 in the first House expulsion in more than a century.
The poll, conducted by We Ask America and first reported this week on the Capitol Fax political blog, shows Smith leading challenger Lance Tyson 48 percent to 9 percent. The automated poll of 556 registered voters in the 10th District on the west side of Chicago was done Sept. 12. About 43 percent of those polled said they are undecided. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.15 percentage points.
“Polls do not necessarily reflect what is going to happen on election day, so if you’re trying to predict accurately the exact outcome of an election, it’s not going to be the same as this poll,” said Dick Simpson, political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former Chicago alderman. “(Polls) tend to over-represent people with high name recognition and incumbents. So all those things skew the results as a barometer.
“Nonetheless, it does indicate Derrick Smith could well win the election despite being thrown out of the House on impeachment and being indicted by the federal government.”
If Smith regains his seat, his House colleagues will not be able to expel him again for the same reasons.
Tyson is a Democrat, but is running on the Unity Party ticket. The Unity Party was set up by Democrats when they chose to run Tyson against Smith in an effort to retain control of the seat.
Tyson is a well-connected Chicago attorney with ties to both former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger. He also has the backing of Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White.
Simpson said Tyson has time to make up ground between now and the November election, but he’ll need a lot of money, a lot of volunteers to go door-to-door and a lot of campaign mailings highlighting Smith’s problems and Tyson’s strong points.