Editorial: Brandon Johnson’s upcoming CTU negotiation should scare taxpayers. Will he surprise us with tough love for his friends?

When Chicago elected Brandon Johnson mayor last year, most knew they were taking a chance on one of the least experienced candidates ever to lead the city.

They also knew which special interest was most responsible for his unlikely victory. In bankrolling the Johnson campaign and putting its formidable organizing muscle to work, the Chicago Teachers Union could be described as the city’s most potent political force today. The new Machine, you might say.

Having propelled a former member and former CTU lobbyist into the city’s highest office, the timing couldn’t be better for the union. The teachers contract expires at the end of this school year. One of the biggest jobs of 2024 for Johnson and his team will be the negotiation of a new pact that recognizes the fiscal realities facing CPS — and Chicago.

The mayor doesn’t represent CTU anymore. He represents the city’s beleaguered taxpayers. Does he understand that? It won’t be long before we find out.

More than half of the property tax bill residents and businesses pay goes to Chicago Public Schools. CPS consistently raises its tax levy by the maximum amount allowed every year.

And, still, the school system faces a daunting monetary cliff beginning next fiscal year, which starts July 1, as federal pandemic-related assistance runs its course. The deficit that will have to be plugged in the next fiscal year will approach $400 million — and that’s before any increased expenses stemming from the new contract.

We believe that, given Johnson’s extraordinarily close ties to the union and CTU President Stacy Davis Gates personally, he ought to fully recuse himself from this coming negotiation. Good governance demands nothing less. Any reasonable person can see that Johnson has an irrefutable conflict of interest.

He shows no signs of doing so. We’ll assume he takes a leadership role in the talks — and ends up the final decision-maker on any proposed contract.

Before we go on, a reminder of why this is so problematic. Prior to becoming mayor, Johnson was a lobbyist for CTU in addition to serving as a Cook County commissioner. The union paid him tens of thousands each year.

Davis Gates remains one of Johnson’s closest political allies. She’s part of his inner circle and a regular political adviser.

In what universe would any taxpayer be comfortable being “represented” at the bargaining table by someone so compromised?

That said, we think this contract represents an opportunity for the mayor.

The mayor’s administration thus far has struggled to gain its footing on a host of issues (e.g., migrant crisis) and shown questionable decision-making skills (e.g., the now-abandoned migrant tent camp on toxic land, barring the public from City Council chambers before reversing course). He certainly hasn’t reassured those who voted against him, or even voted reluctantly for him, that he can be a mayor for the entire city rather than just the interests who financed his run.

What better way to turn around that narrative than to tell his friends in CTU the city must live within its means and there’s not a bottomless well of resources to finance their wish list?

Among urban public school teachers, Chicago’s are among the best compensated in the country. The CPS budget over the past five years has increased 28% to $9.4 billion from $7.4 billion. Total outlays for salaries have climbed about a third in that time. Few private sector professionals have been so lucky.

This is despite sharply falling enrollment. CPS students numbered just over 400,000 a decade ago. The total in fiscal 2023 was less than 322,000, a 20% decline. That’s even as the overall population in Chicago was more or less stable over that period.

Yes, the influx of migrants is adding to demand for public schools. But the overarching trends are strikingly and dismayingly clear. More parents with choices are opting to educate their kids outside of CPS.

They include Davis Gates herself, who sends one of her children to a Catholic school and had the audacity when that bombshell news broke in September to disparage essentially all of the CPS high school options on the South Side. That was just two weeks after she responded this way to South Side Weekly in response to a question about whether she was concerned about “school-choice and privatization supporters” running for seats on the Chicago School Board: “Yes, we are concerned about the encroachment of fascists in Chicago.”

If the union had its way and did away with selective enrollment and charter schools, only parents like Davis Gates, who could afford it, would have a choice other than traditional CPS. We wouldn’t call that “fascist” because that term shouldn’t be thrown around. We would call it overly prescriptive — and hypocritical for the leader of the city’s most politically potent union.

The CPS budgetary and enrollment trend lines scream for better allocation of resources. Like it or not, they cry out, too, for a more efficient — and likely scaled-down — physical footprint. No one wants their neighborhood school closed. But, until CPS provides a more attractive option for parents, those are the hard realities it has to face.

Recent changes to state law will give the union the legal right to bargain over a wider array of issues than before, including class sizes and the hiring of nurses and other adjunct staff. Johnson will be handed a long list of demands, no doubt. He’d better get comfortable quickly with telling his friends they can’t have everything on that list — or even a majority of it.

Unfortunately, the tea leaves are there for everyone to read. Johnson’s deal last year with the Chicago police union included pay raises that doubled what the union already agreed to previously for 2024 and 2025. If Johnson was so generous with the police union, which endorsed his opponent in the election, how will he treat his CTU besties?

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