Chicago asks school teachers to take 7 percent pay cut: union
'Teacher And Pre-School Pupil' [Shutterstock]

Three years after a public school strike, Chicago teacher contract talks are off to a rocky start, with the debt-burdened district demanding a 7 percent pay cut, union officials said on Tuesday.

The Chicago Teachers Union said in a statement it was "highly insulted" by the district's demands, which include increases in health insurance premiums. The current contract expires on June 30.

The nation's third-largest school district, which serves 400,000 students, faces a prospective $1.1 billion deficit. Getting to a new contract, without another strike, will be the first major test of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's second term.

The process has been complicated by legal problems. Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett, appointed by Emanuel, took a leave of absence in April pending the outcome of a federal probe into a contract awarded to a company that had employed her.

"The financial crises facing CPS is real – we face a budget deficit that exceeds $1.1 billion, while Illinois is second to last in education funding, and Chicago teachers and taxpayers are being short-changed because of a broken pension system that forces Chicago residents to pay twice for teacher pensions," Chicago Public Schools spokesman Bill McCaffrey said in a written statement.

"In the coming weeks, we hope to work with CTU in Springfield on the pressing issues facing CPS. Our students and Chicago taxpayers should not have to continue carrying the burden of these financial inequities," he said.

Last week, the district declined to extend the existing contract by one year, which would have cost $105 million.

"Once again, the board has created a fiscal crisis in order to justify its continued attack on our classrooms and communities," union President Karen Lewis said. "CPS is broke on purpose."

Union staff coordinator Jackson Potter said the union wants Emanuel to look at financial fixes, such as raising taxes on the richest residents and recovering what they say are excessive fees paid to banks that do business with the schools.

The teachers want smaller classes, less standardized testing and to staff all schools with nurses, librarians and art teachers.

Antipathy between Emanuel and the teachers' union runs deep, from the 2012 strike, the district's first in 25 years, to a decision to close 50 schools in 2013 and more recent differences over testing.

(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Eric Beech, Dan Whitcomb and Alex Richardson)