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Chicago Teachers, Board Meet Again As Court Deadline Nears

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As a new deadline for shutting down the Chicago school system approached, negotiators for the school board and the Chicago Teachers Union met late last week for another round of talks in Mayor Richard M. Daley's office.

A federal judge has issued two 10-day temporary restraining orders that have allowed the district to operate without a balanced budget. But the second reprieve granted by U.S. District Judge Charles P. Kocoras was set to expire on Oct. 4, leaving the possibility that the school system could be forced to close this week.

The Chicago schools, which are prohibited by state law from operating with a deficit, must close a budget shortfall of nearly $300 million. The school board is hoping to reach an agreement with the teachers' union on a new contract that contains some concessions to plug part of the gap.

To make up the rest, the board is hoping that Illinois lawmakers will approve legislation that will allow the system to raise new money through the sale of bonds. As of last week, legislators had yet to act on the board's request.

Representatives of the board and the union met twice last week in the Mayor's office, trying to hammer out a contract.

D. Sharon Grant, the president of the school board, said last week in a statement that the board has "displayed flexibility'' on a number of positions, including teachers' contributions to their health-care costs. She called on union leaders to follow suit.

The two sides now are battling over the board's recent move to increase class sizes, which would mean that schools would need fewer teachers.

Mayor Daley called a press conference last week to urge the union to accept a proposal to boost classes by one student each. He argued that Chicago's classes would still be smaller than those in comparably sized cities.

Because the contract talks have gone on for so long, the school board also has asked Judge Kocoras to order that some of the changes now under negotiation be made. The judge has not ruled on that request. (See Education Week, Sept. 29, 1993.)

The board argued in taking its case to the federal court that its efforts to desegregate schools were imperiled by the budget standoff and the prospect of closing schools.

Worry Over Elections

While the budget crisis has been uppermost on Chicagoans minds, the city also is scheduled to have another round of elections for seats on the local school councils that govern each school.

After the opening of school was delayed for a week because of the budget standoff, the school board moved the election date back one week, to Oct. 21.

The uncertain opening of school has made it difficult, however, for school-reform advocates to turn their full attention to drumming up interest among people who could serve on the councils and publicizing the election.

A coalition of reformers is hoping that the state legislature, if and when it turns its attention to passing legislation for the Chicago schools, will move the date for the elections back to the day in November when parents are asked to visit schools to pick up their children's report cards.

Holding the voting on a day when people are scheduled to be in the schools, they argue, would help increase voter turnout and give people time to organize for the voting.

"It is time that we put this crisis behind us and focus on the October 21 local school council elections and improved student achievement,'' Ms. Grant said in her statement.

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