"We need the political leadership of the city to know that schools can't keep being the last priority."
Thousands gathered in Chicago on Thursday to support the city's teachers union and rally against the massive budget cuts proposed earlier this week by the Chicago Public Schools (CPS).
Protesters marched through the Loop in downtown Chicago and staged a sit-in at the Bank of America local headquarters, where 16 were arrested. A day before the protests, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) pulled $726,000 from its account there, transferring it to Amalgamated Bank, in response to CPS making a $725 million tax-exempt bond sale with BOA to keep the district afloat through the fiscal year.
"I think we have to really put our priorities in perspective," CTU president Karen Lewis told reporters outside the bank. "So the people that gain the most out of our system being in financial chaos are right behind us, so that's why we're down here. Because we have to make a choice in this city: banks or schools?"
CTU vice president Jesse Sharkey added, "We need the political leadership of the city to know that schools can't keep being the last priority."
"Teachers around this city are united right now," Sharkey said. "We do not want to see mid-year cuts to the schools. We do not think that the cuts that the board is proposing should be done on the backs of front line educators, especially when the appointed board of education has made sweetheart deals with banks and now refuses to ask the same banks to give back some of the wealth."
One teacher who took part in Thursday's protest told WGN-TV, "The city pretends like they didn't know that they had to make a pension payment...and now somehow it's my fault."
The protests come just a few days after CTU, which has been without a contract since last July, rejected an offer from the Board of Education for a four-year contract on the grounds that it would have hiked taxes and slashed $100 million from pensions and classroom funds, without addressing the "long-term fiscal crisis that threatens to gut public education in the city."
One CTU bargaining team member said the offer also included vague language that may have been an attempt to force teachers into accepting the contract.
The contract would "devastate conditions in the schools," Sharkey told the Chicago Tribune from the ground on Thursday. "It's abominable to be cutting schools in the middle of a school year."
Lewis said, "It's a decrease in their paycheck, but also it's not part of labor law. We're still under the old contract. So to unilaterally make a change in the contract is, as far as we're concerned, a declaration of war."
Talks between CTU and CPS are set to resume Friday.
The rejection was "a sign we have a serious democratic process," Sharkey said. "The leadership recognizes that there was a serious attempt on the part of the district to offer some things that we're interested in. And what we heard loud and clear from our rank and file is that we don't trust the district enough just to have assurances and promises. There can't be big loopholes in that."