Chicago teachers, school district seem closer to ending strike

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Teachers and school officials negotiated late into the night Thursday after beginning the day optimistic that Chicago schools could reopen Monday.

Before talks began on the fourth day of the teachers strike in the nation’s third-largest district, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis rated her confidence “a 9" on a scale of 1 to 10.

Her words buoyed teachers, but optimism was tempered with caution.


“We’re most optimistic that the union leadership will make sure our demands are met,” said Michelle Gunderson, a fourth-grade teacher. “We can’t just do this again. This has to be the finish line.”

About 350,000 students who remained out of class will have to make up the loss of education days later in the school year. An additional 50,000 students in charter schools are not affected by the strike.

The most contentious issues have been job security and evaluations. A key sticking point involves how the district will implement a 2010 Illinois law requiring student test scores to be factored into teacher evaluations.

Under the latest deal offered by Chicago Public Schools, evaluations of tenured teachers during the first year could not result in dismissal; later evaluations could be appealed; and health insurance rates would hold steady if the union agreed to take part in a wellness program.

Job security has emerged as a critical issue as school officials consider closing sparsely enrolled and underperforming schools to cut costs and conserve resources. Union leaders worry about the jobs that could be lost during such a dramatic downsizing.

Teachers would receive on average a 16% raise over the four-year life of the proposed contract. School officials estimate the cost of those raises at $80 million each year — $320 million total. The union calls those projections exaggerated by as much as $100 million.

There has been little if any debate over the proposed raises. To pay for them, other expenses would have to be cut. Money-saving tactics could include closing schools and shifting public school students to charters that hire mostly lower-paid, nonunion workers and get additional funding from philanthropic sources.

The proposal also removes the district’s ability to rescind raises because of an economic crisis. The board stripped teachers of a 4% raise last year, sparking union distrust of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who appoints the school board and has been heavily involved in education issues.

Emanuel has not specified how the district would pay for the higher salaries, saying only that “they’ve worked through those issues” and “teachers are the most important resource.”

In another sign of optimism, the union’s House of Delegates was scheduled to meet Friday afternoon to discuss the latest proposal. Delegates would have to vote to end the strike. Once they did, it could take at least a week for the union’s 26,000 members to ratify a new contract.

Chicago teachers had not struck in 25 years. Their last walkout lasted 19 days.