‘Time ticking’ on teachers contract, as Chicago schools chief says she’ll join talks when ‘appropriate’

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WASHINGTON — While Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson said on Wednesday she will likely be part of the negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union when the two sides get closer to finalizing a deal, the union president said they’re still far from an agreement.

Jackson was in the Capitol on Wednesday to testify before a House subcommittee dealing with how schools handle trauma stemming from gun violence and substance abuse. Afterward, she discussed the status of the contract talks and her involvement in negotiations with the Sun-Times.

“I think there’s definitely a role for myself and others to play when appropriate,” said Jackson, once a social studies teacher at South Shore High School. “We have started to meet more frequently with CTU. We’re meeting with them now three times a week and really getting through the many proposals that they have presented to us.

“And so I think as we get closer to, you know, finalizing and landing this thing there will be a role,” Jackson said.

In years past, it has been normal for the top schools chief to only step into bargaining in the final stages to close the deal. In 2016, when then schools CEO Forrest Claypool was at the helm, Jackson was the Chief Education Officer and was at the bargaining table at this stage of the talks. The current Chief Education Officer, LaTanya McDade, has been engaged throughout this year’s negotiations.

Separately, CTU President Sharkey said he had a “respectful conversation” with Mayor Lori Lightfoot this week in which she “stressed the desire to keep the line of communication open and settle an agreement that improves the schools.” But Sharkey said the messaging coming from the mayor hasn’t matched what’s happened in negotiations.

“It’s like we were reading off two different scripts,” Sharkey said. “I’m not sure what kind of information she’s been getting about what they’re up to at the table, but it’s a stark contrast to what’s being talked about in public.”

A spokeswoman for the mayor declined to comment.

Teacher prep time at issue

Though key compensation issues appear closer to being resolved — Mayor Lori Lightfoot proposed a 16% pay raise spread over five years — the CTU is still looking for better wages for its lower-paid support staff.

Aside from pay and benefits, the union is now focusing on teacher preparation time, student assessments, teacher evaluations and class sizes. Sharkey said one of the CTU’s biggest concerns that has kept them from a deal has been the city’s insistence on cutting down teacher prep time and letting principals decide how that time is used — which teachers worry could mean less time to get their work done.

“It’s a long list of things — all the lesson preparation and grading, but also phone calls, checking with parents and collaboration with lessons,” Sharkey said. “All that stuff happens in those four hours. In reality teachers take that home, but you get four hours of school time. And they want to cut it to two.”

Jackson said the city has started to include principals in bargaining to help explain their reasoning.

“One thing that we actually did different this time around is we actually have principal representation there, too, which really gives much more perspective and, I guess, gravitas to some of the push-back that maybe CPS has given to some of those proposals,” Jackson said.

For the CTU bargaining team, despite the principal presence, the city’s proposal “went over like a lead balloon,” Sharkey said.

“For a district that is trying to say … we’re gonna get an agreement, they couldn’t have picked a worse strategy,” Sharkey said. “Everyone was sullen and frustrated by the end of yesterday about the way bargaining is going.”

Though Lightfoot and Jackson have expressed optimism a deal could get done — with the mayor repeatedly saying there’s “no reason” a strike should happen — Sharkey said he doesn’t share the same feelings.

“I’m always hopeful, but what I won’t say is that it’s going well,” Sharkey said. “Time is ticking. It’s getting later. Now is the time to get serious. And what they were doing yesterday wasn’t serious.”

CTU members are set to vote from Sept. 24-26 on whether to authorize a strike. If a strike is approved, the earliest date a walk out could take place is Oct. 7.

Sharkey said the CTU wouldn’t strike “over a fantasy list of unattainable demands,” and that union leaders are prioritizing proposals that they believe are achievable.

Lynn Sweet reported from Washington. Nader Issa reported from Chicago.

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