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Job Freeze Cited as Chicago Delays Opening of Schools

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The Chicago Board of Education last week postponed the opening of school for the city's 411,000 students until Sept. 14, saying that a new hiring freeze imposed by the state had made it impossible to fill critical vacancies.

Gov. Jim Edgar and leaders of the Illinois legislature, meanwhile, met again in Springfield to address the funding crisis that has left the school system without a balanced budget.

They were expected to consider a plan proposed by Mayor Richard M. Daley, as well as a pilot voucher program for Chicago parents proposed by the president of the Senate.

In a special session on Sept. 2, the legislature voted to waive a requirement that the district's budget be balanced. The waiver was intended to allow the school year to start as scheduled on Sept. 8. (See Education Week, Sept. 8, 1993.)

But lawmakers also imposed a freeze on district hiring--a restriction that General Superintendent Argie K. Johnson said made it impossible to fill more than 7,000 job vacancies that exist throughout the system.

"I cannot allow children into schools where many classrooms will not have teachers, where safety and security personnel will be inadequate, and where meals will not be delivered on time,'' Ms. Johnson said last week in announcing the postponement of the first day of school.

The school system also risked violating a federal consent decree, she said, because of the number of vacancies in special-education positions.

About 2,600 of the system's vacancies resulted from employees taking advantage of a state early-retirement option. In addition, the Chicago Teachers Union estimates that at any one time some 3,800 teaching positions are being filled by full-time substitutes.

'See Who Blinks'

Illinois lawmakers have repeatedly said they were waiting for the school board and the teachers' union to agree on a new contract before the legislature addresses the district's financial crisis.

But last week, the union's 675-member House of Delegates unanimously rejected a final settlement proposed by the board's negotiators.

"What we have here is a situation where we're saying we can't bargain without knowing what the legislature will do, and the legislature saying it will not do anything without a tentative agreement to look at,'' said Gail Purkey, a spokeswoman for the union. "It's a see-who-blinks posture.''

The two parties returned to the bargaining table late last week, but made no progress. They do not even agree on what the board's final offer was. The board says it offered to give teachers the raises they would have earned by advancing on the existing salary schedule, while the union insists that the board proposed a two-year salary freeze.

The two-year contract offer was a "bitter disappointment'' to teachers, Jacqueline B. Vaughn, the president of the union, wrote in a letter to the school board president, D. Sharon Grant.

The union had tentatively agreed to about $40 million in concessions sought by the board, Ms. Vaughn wrote, including lengthening the high school teaching day and the school year and contributing to health-care costs, as well as provisions enhancing principals' powers.

The board had been seeking about $80 million in concessions.

The union has "categorically rejected'' a salary freeze, is "unalterably opposed'' to transferring money from the teachers' pension fund to reduce the district's deficit, and believes it is "patently unfair'' not to pay teachers bonuses for advanced training, the union president wrote.

To plug the entire $298 million budget gap, Mayor Daley has proposed that the School Finance Authority, which oversees the district's finances, be permitted to issue bonds. But his plan also depends on union concessions.

After the legislature gave the district a reprieve from the law requiring a balanced budget, members of the teachers' union had agreed they would go back to school Sept. 7 to prepare for the scheduled Sept. 8 opening. They had planned to vote that night on whether to work the next day without a contract, but Superintendent Johnson's decision to delay the opening made that unnecessary.

Whether the teachers will teach without a new contract is unknown.

Some Employees Working

As the players in the drama continued to circle one another last week, some Chicago school employees did go back to work.

Ms. Johnson said the school board would appoint acting principals, selected by local school councils, at 108 schools where principals accepted early retirement.

Principals also have been told which teachers have retired, so that they can begin planning, she said.

Ms. Johnson said the system was ready to fill about 3,000 of the 4,300 teaching vacancies, and that 2,300 of those teachers had already been approved by the schools.

She said "substantial progress'' had been made in filling the 3,000 nonteaching vacancies.

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