Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis spoke Monday morning at a convention for the statewide Parent Mentor Program. She talked with reporters afterward about the status of contract negotiations with the district and the union's plans for an April 1 "showdown."
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis told reporters Monday she expects to have more information next week about the one-day "showdown" that the union has promised for April 1.
After Chicago Public Schools officials announced last week the implementation of three furlough days this school year as a means to help tackle the cash-strapped school district's budget problems, CTU vowed to hold an "unfair labor practice day of action" against the district's "austerity agenda" on April 1. CTU's announcement came amid ongoing contract negotiations between the union and school district.
It remains unclear what the April 1 day of action will entail, though Lewis has said it could include a one-day walkout or downtown rally.
Speaking to the media Monday morning after a convention in Chicago for the statewide Parent Mentor Program, Lewis said union members plan to discuss the "showdown" details at a meeting on Saturday.
"It's gonna be a showdown one way or the other. We're trying to figure out how do we utilize the strengths and weaknesses that we have to deal with on a regular basis, and April 1 may be one of those days of strength. It's a showdown. That's the way we've been calling it. We don't know what that looks like yet," Lewis said. "We will know more next week. So Saturday, we're having a big meeting at Hyde Park High School ... Hopefully, that's where we'll be getting our information from our members about what it is they want to do and how they want to do it."
The union initially said the three furloughs days "all but assure(d)" a teacher walkout on April 1. News of the furloughs came in addition to the district's controversial plan to eliminate its 7 percent pension pickup for teachers, a move announced last month after CTU's "Big Bargaining Team" rejected a four-year contract offer from the district.
On Friday, union leaders softened their strike language after the school district said it would hold off on canceling the pension pickup, at least for now.
The district and CTU have different legal theories on whether teachers could hit the picket lines on April 1. CPS CEO Forrest Claypool has said that the required fact-finding process has to occur prior to a teachers strike. Lewis, however, argues that the union can strike April 1 over unfair labor practices.
Lewis said parents "shouldn't be nervous" about the April 1 action.
"We're still trying to figure that out," Lewis said. "And I wish I could tell them, but you know, like, look at it as an extra holiday, right? I mean just look at it that way. That's the only thing I can tell them to make them feel better, but they shouldn't be nervous. They shouldn't be upset. There should be no anxiety around it. It won't be something that's open-ended. That's what they need to understand."
A potential strike over contract issues could be a different story, however. Lewis said teachers could hold a contract-based strike as early as May 16.
"I'm talking about April 1. Now May 16, I can't promise how that's gonna go," the labor leader said.
Lewis said contract talks between the two sides are continuing, adding that the district has presented the union with a revised contract offer.
"We've been back and forth with that," Lewis said. "We're probably going to try to give them something by Thursday in response to what they've come to us with."
Lewis told reporters she wasn't prepared to discuss the current sticking points in negotiations.
"We're still trying to tweak things. A lot of this stuff is around the edges," she added. "Our biggest problem is we want to make sure we can close any loopholes, because we think we have a good idea about how things work. And then when we see how it's implemented in the schools, we see that (there are) things that need to be tightened up, and that's what our members are responding to. Whatever the loopholes are, we want them closed."
Lewis addressed the media after speaking briefly at the 2016 convention of the statewide Parent Mentor Program, which is a partnership between schools and community organizations in low-income neighborhoods. As part of the program, which was originally started in 1995 by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, parents are recruited and trained to tutor students who need extra help.
There are 586 parent mentors in 70 schools across the state, serving over 14,000 students. Sixteen organizations help implement the Parent Mentor Program in Illinois.
Pashun McNulty, with the Southwest Suburban Immigrant Project, is a parent mentor at Independence Elementary School in Bolingbrook. She has a second grader at the school.
"By playing a more active role in my child's school, I am able to be more effectively engaged in the educational system and in my community," McNulty said at the convention, held at the Apostolic Church of God Banquet Hall on the city's South Side. "If it wasn't for parent mentors, I don't know if I would have this opportunity. The Parent Mentor Program makes a difference."
Parent Mentor Program participants, however, expressed concerns about future state funding for the initiative. The Illinois State Board of Education has recommended increasing the program's funding from the current $1.47 million to $2 million next fiscal year, which starts July 1. Gov. Bruce Rauner's 2017 budget proposal includes zero funding for the Parent Mentor Program, according to the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.
Lewis thanked the parents and organizations involved with the program before taking a swipe at Rauner.
"These programs that you are working in strengthen the community, strengthen the city, strengthen the state, and, quite frankly, strengthen our world," she said. "It's also important for you to know that you are the heart and soul of our schools and our communities, but we are all being held hostage by a governor that doesn't want to work for us."
Rauner and Democratic legislative leaders remain at odds over a state budget that should have taken effect in July.
"As you know, the budget's been held hostage by a sociopath," Lewis said, triggering laughter from the audience.
She urged convention-goers to contact state lawmakers about the importance of funding the Parent Mentor Program.
Lewis briefly expanded on her comments about Rauner while speaking with reporters. She drew attention to the $26 million in cuts for autism programs and other social services the governor unexpectedly issued last year. After facing public backlash over the cuts, Rauner eventually reinstated the $26 million in funds thanks to unforeseen revenues from income tax receipts.
"He is a sociopath," Lewis said. "How do you cut funding to autism on World Autism Day? How do you do that?"