Mayor Rahm Emanuel is pushing back against the Chicago's powerful teachers union as the city's budget crisis deepens — something that most Democratic mayors have avoided to keep from upsetting their labor supporters.
After facing off against a historic teachers strike last August, Emanuel and the city's appointed Board of Education in May made the biggest teacher cuts in school district history, laying off some 3,000 school workers — about 7 percent of the total teacher workforce — and closing 50 schools, mostly elementaries, about 10 percent of the citywide total.
Emanuel's tough predicament was inherited from the previous administration of longtime Democratic Mayor Richard Daley, which left him little choice but to make drastic changes.
Shaving Chicago's mounting deficit was crucial, says Heartland Institute economic analyst Steve Stanek, adding that Emanuel, a former White House chief of staff under President Barack Obama and former Democratic congressman, has been firm against pressure from the unions.
"I'm sure the mayor doesn't want to do a lot of these things but he's had to face reality," Stanek told Newsmax. "He has taken stands against these unions and dealt with budget problems in a more honest way than Mayor Daley did... I think he came to the city as mayor, took a look at his budget, and thought, 'Holy smokes, this is a giant mess.'"
Union officials, not surprisingly, are furious and continue to mount strong protests, urging members to contact the mayor and ask that he stop the cuts. In May, union officials sued the city. A Cook County judge denied a motion last month to halt some school closures.
So when school opens Aug. 26, classes likely will be larger and some students will be attending schools farther from home.
The reason for the bold cutbacks is the $1 billion deficit facing Chicago Public Schools. About 40 percent of the that shortfall is pension obligations.
Stanek noted that Moody's Investor Service had downgraded the school district's debt rating this year by three levels, with harsh language in its forecast, and that funding for employee pensions was expected to rise from $476 million to more than $1.2 billion in the next couple of years.
"That sort of downgrade is unprecedented," Stanek said. "And it sends a message that Chicago has some serious financial problems that are likely to get worse."
But union officials say that retired teachers who contributed to pensions over a career and receive no Social Security payments should not be blamed for the lack of pension reform when the district didn't meet its payment obligations.
Chicago teachers do not contribute to Social Security or get benefits. Instead, they contribute 9 percent of their salary toward retirement. By comparison, Social Security benefits are based upon a 6 percent contribution.
"We resist the urge on the part of the administration of this city to blame teachers and to blame our pensions for the crisis," Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey told WBEZ. "Blaming retired teachers who make an average of $40,000 a year for their retirement, who get no Social Security, who never missed a payment — while the city itself didn't put any money into the fund for 10 years, who have had a massive pension holiday for three years — we think that's hypocrisy."
Even as the school district blamed the problem on the lack of pension reform by the state legislature, union members charged that the mayor was taking public dollars from schools and moving toward a goal of more privatization of education, including investment in charter schools and the hiring of more educators from the Teach for America program.
Teach for America provides teachers who don't hold traditional education degrees with positions in underperforming schools or in economically challenged areas. Chicago Public Schools spends about $1.6 million a year on the program, which pays for 570 new and second-year teachers.
School officials said they recognize that the reforms are upsetting to families and teachers, but that it's underutilized schools being closed.
Joy Pullmann, an education research fellow at Chicago's Heartland Institute, said fears are overblown about possible violent turf battles between rival gangs when students are reassigned to new schools
"There were schools in Chicago that were sitting empty," Pullmann told Newsmax. "I think it's inappropriate to say we should keep 30 kids in a 300-student school simply because some think there will be gang problems."
But violence in Chicago, which has impacted its youth significantly in recent years, remains a huge concern. Since 2008, more than 530 city youth have been killed.
Academic achievement has been dismal, but there is a bit of good news.
In May, the school system CEO touted a rising graduation rate, which had increased 2 percent over last year and was up 19 percentage points from more than a decade ago, rising from a low of 44 percent in 2003. The projected 63 percent still far below the national average of 78 percent.
Chicago-based political and business strategist Kyle Hillman believes Emanuel will not be hurt politically even as the union outcry continues, calling him "a shoo-in" for re-election, with a council that rubber stamps his initiatives.
"These massive changes are all part of his strategic policy that he feels will reform public education in Chicago. Unlike his predecessor, who would have taken a more measured long-term approach, this mayor prefers larger, sweeping changes," Hillman said.
Pullman, of the Heartland Institute, offered some advice to the mayor to help keep the school district afloat.
"I would suggest to him, given how dire the circumstances, he should be a pretty strict bargainer with the unions. The finances there are just absolutely dire. They are just a few years out of becoming the next Detroit."
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