Three reasons why Chicago’s veteran pay dispute is something to watch

More than two months after ending a bitter strike, Chicago’s school district and teachers union still haven’t agreed on how to parcel out $25 million promised in raises for veteran educators, even after the union filed a complaint with a state labor relations board. 

The agreement that ended last year’s record-long teachers strike awarded $5 million annually in pay raises for teachers who have worked in the district 14 years or more, to total $25 million over the five-year contract. 

But that document did not spell out how those raises would be distributed, and the district and union haven’t agreed on whether the additional raises will be one-off bonuses or long-term base pay raises. 

The unfair labor practice complaint, filed by the union on Dec. 20 with the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board, alleges the Chicago Board of Education is “refusing to honor an agreement reached on wages” and discriminating against unionized veteran teachers. 

The day before, on Dec. 19, the union and board representatives had their last face-to-face session to negotiate the details about the veteran pay contract but couldn’t come to an agreement. 

The issue affects nearly 10,000 veteran educators, and is playing out amid an ongoing teacher shortage and an uphill effort to recruit and retain teachers of color. 

Often in labor disputes, unresolved issues linger even after an agreement is ratified, but they’re not usually of any substance, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Professor Bob Bruno said. 

That makes this dispute something of an outlier in how contract negotiations usually proceed. It’s also revived rancor between the union and district, hearkening back to the teachers’ bitter 11-day strike. 

Here’s what you need to know about veteran pay: 

Chicago’s pay schedule for veteran teachers is pretty similar to that in other cities

On the picket line, teachers lamented that after yearly scheduled pay increases in their first 14 years of teaching, the size of pay increases diminished. 

Right now, teachers get automatic raises for the first 14 years of their career, in addition to any cost-of-living increases that a contract may award. After that, longevity increases shrink or stop, with annual bumps mostly in fractions of a percentage point. Those don’t include negotiated cost-of-living increases in contracts.

That’s standard among districts, according to an analysis of the 100 largest school districts in the country, and of the largest in each state, by the National Council on Teacher Quality research group. 

“On average, it takes a teacher in a large districts 25 years to reach the maximum scheduled salary,” said Kency Nittler, director of the council’s work on teacher policy. That’s exactly what happens in Chicago, she said, where teachers max out at 26 years. 

Veteran teachers in other districts do, however, see smaller pay raises more often than do veteran teachers in Chicago. That’s because they have more standard step increases, Nittler said, while about one-third of districts also offer some kind of longevity pay. 

On the current salary schedule, teachers with master’s degrees and 14 years of experience will see their salary, including annual cost of living increases, go from $91,196 this school year to $103,641 – a 13.6% increase — over the five years of the contract. In the same period, a teacher with a master’s degree and five years of experience would see their salary go from $63,730 to $83,091, a 30.3% increase. 

Other districts likely will be watching any changes Chicago makes — its union has been a pacesetter for contract demands in its last few negotiations, and could spur similar talks in other cities. 

Chicago needs its veteran teachers – and pay is one way to keep them 

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson each have pledged to boost diversity among Chicago’s teaching ranks. 

Exactly how they plan to do that remains to be seen, and is the topic of a new special school board-led committee. 

The group’s first meeting zeroed in on how the district can retain more experienced educators, a critical issue as analysis of data of new teachers shows a younger, whiter workforce.

Veteran teachers in Chicago are more likely to be educators of color, and they’re also leaving the district at high rates, spurred in part by layoffs due to declining enrollment and school closures concentrated in schools that serve African-American students.  

Since 2011, black teachers in particular have left the district at higher rates than have teachers of other races. As a result, the city has lost a quarter of its black teaching force over a six-year period, according to a Chalkbeat analysis

New teachers, meanwhile, are more likely to skew white, even as the majority of the district’s students — now 89% — are non-white. 

That means efforts to diversify the teacher workforce should also consider how to best retain veteran teachers. 

That’s where veteran pay raises come in. Teachers on picket lines during the strike told Chalkbeat it was a galvanizing factor among the more experienced — and respected — of their colleagues.

“Your pay is frozen for a lot of that time,” said Meia Freidheim, a middle school science and math teacher at Orozco Elementary in Pilsen and a 23-year veteran of Chicago schools, on the second day of picketing. “In most professions as you get more experienced, you get more money. In teaching, that is only happening early in your career.” 

The contract was ratified in November, but many critical details are unresolved 

The failure to nail down the veteran pay details shows how, in the rush to end the 11-day strike, some important conversations were shelved. One thing is clear: Chicago is going to be unspooling these details and figuring out their impact for years to come. 

The district has said that one of the holdups on veteran pay is how to account for compounding raises that grow year-over-year, which is why officials have been pushing for bonuses that don’t compound. The teachers union has argued that they were promised the $25 million would come in through raises in base pay. 

The argument underscores a larger issue: How Chicago Public Schools, which remains underfunded by the state’s own school budgeting formula, will pay for other growing costs included in the contract, chiefly additional social workers, nurses, and counselors. The district is covering the first year of new costs with surplus tax dollars and savings from salaries not paid for six of the 11 days that teachers were striking. (Teachers are making up the five other strike days.)

But after this it is not clear how the school district will find additional revenue, unless the state agrees to direct more money toward Chicago.