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Without Settlement, Chicago Schools May Have To Close

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After giving the Chicago public schools five extra days to try to reach a contract agreement with the Chicago Teachers' Union, a federal judge warned last week that the system would have to close its doors if a settlement were not reached before midnight Oct. 8.

If the board of education and the teachers' union reach an agreement, schools will stay open this week to allow the Illinois legislature to take action on a borrowing proposal to close the system's nearly $300 million budget gap.

Assisted by top state and local politicians, negotiators for the board and union met last week for talks in Mayor Richard M. Daley's office.

The School Finance Authority, which oversees the system's budget, agreed to the third extension of the judge's temporary restraining order, despite its concerns that the federal court should not allow the district to operate without a balanced budget. (See Education Week, Sept. 29, 1993.)

U.S. District Judge Charles P. Kocoras also scheduled an Oct. 18 hearing on a request by the board of education for a 30-day injunction against the state law that requires Chicago schools to have a balanced budget.

At that time, if the financial crisis is not solved, he is also expected to announce a schedule of hearings on the board's request for further court intervention in the case.

The board is asking the court to allow it to use the teachers' pension fund for general operating expenses and to give it permission to take about $16 million of the $34.6 million in state compensatory-aid money that is to go directly to schools this year.

Advocacy groups have protested the move to use the remedial aid, which has been the engine driving reforms in many schools.

Designs for Change, a leading research and advocacy group in the city, has insisted that the money be taken from all Chicago schools, not just those with large numbers of poor students, on a per-pupil basis.

The group has developed an "equity plan'' that would funnel the remaining $18.6 million in state compensatory-aid money to schools based on the percentage of low-income students. Under the plan, schools would receive proportionally more money if they enroll large numbers of low-income students. But the richest schools would not lose money.

Arbitration Proposed

Meanwhile, the board of education proposed that an arbitrator settle the remaining unresolved issues in the negotiations.

D. Sharon Grant, the president of the board, said in a statement that the offer was made because "it appears highly unlikely that an agreement will be reached by the court-imposed Friday deadline.''

But the union rejected the proposal, which Jackie Gallagher, a spokeswoman for the union, termed "a media presentation.''

Ms. Gallagher also said that progress was made during talks last week, and that the two sides had exchanged counterproposals on outstanding issues.

One item that has emerged as a major concern for the union is the school board's decision to increase the average class size so fewer teachers would be needed.

At the same time, class periods have been lengthened to 50 minutes, so that teachers are now teaching 250 minutes a day instead of 200.

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