Karen Lewis may well be regretting the timing of her rumored upcoming vacation.
Michael Sneed, the ever-astute gossip columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times, received a tip that the Chicago Teachers Union president is headed to Hawaii for a vacation this weekend, as the union fights the city's school board over teacher pay raises.
Earlier this week, the Board of Education voted to rescind a four percent raise that the teachers were scheduled to receive under a contract negotiated with then-schools CEO (and now Education Secretary) Arne Duncan in 2007. That contract was intended to appease a restive union, but given that the schools are now facing a deficit of over $700 million, the board decided that it couldn't afford the salary increase this year.
In fact, the ability to opt out of the raises was built into the contract itself: the salary hikes were “contingent upon a reasonable expectation” that the board had the money to pay for them, according to a separate Sun-Times story Thursday. The board felt that expectation didn't exist this year.
The union responded by preparing to square off with the district, demanding negotiations on the raises. If the talks fall through, the teachers are reportedly willing to open up the entire contract to renegotiation, which could also open the door to a possible strike.
A Thursday story in the Chicago Tribune reports that the schools are ready to meet: "CPS officials on Thursday sent the unions a letter asking to discuss dates for the negotiation sessions, adding that district representatives would be ready to meet 'at their earliest possible convenience,'" the Trib reports.
That earliest convenience might not be so soon if Lewis is indeed in Hawaii.
While there's certainly nothing wrong with taking time off, the optics on the trip aren't great for the union, with its leader taking an island vacation as it argues that members are underpaid and deserve more money from an already cash-strapped district.
The dispute on raises is likely only the opening volley in a skirmish between CPS and the CTU, as new legislation signed by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn this week opened the door to a longer school day and school year in Chicago. Teachers are likely to demand more pay for the increased hours, a demand that's sure to be a bone of contention over the summer.