Published Online: September 13, 2012

Chicago Strike Enters Day Four With Rumblings of Resolution

A large group of public school teachers marches past John Marshall Metropolitan High School on Wednesday in Chicago. Teachers walked off the job Monday for the first time in 25 years over issues that include pay raises, classroom conditions, job security and teacher evaluations.
—Sitthixay Ditthavong/AP

Talks drag on, with school closings in spotlight

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As talk of progress spread from the bargaining table to the picket line, striking Chicago teachers said this morning they hope their actions will be a good lesson not just for their students, but for other unions across the country.

“Other schools and strikers around the country can realize we should no longer be bullied,” said Donielle Lawson, known as “the jail teacher” because she teaches special education at York Alternative High School located at Cook County Jail.

Lawson said she sent a text message to Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis late Wednesday night after hearing that the two sides had made progress and students could be back into the classroom by Friday.

"Get to bed," Lawson said she texted Lewis around 12:15 a.m.

A public school teacher thanks two boys wearing stickers supporting the Chicago Teachers Union as a large group of teachers marches around John Marshall Metropolitan High School on Wednesday in Chicago.
—Sitthixay Ditthavong/AP

"Just got home," Lewis texted back.

Negotiations are to resume this morning amid optimism from both sides.

Like other teachers on the picket line into front of CPS headquarters this morning, Lawson said she is anxious to get back to the classroom and her students. She plans on having candid conversations with them about the strike.

"They’re all too familiar with bullying and societal injustices, so it would be a very easy conversation with them,” Lawson said. “They’re all fighting cases right now. Some are looking at 45 [years in prison] to life.”

Christopher Barker said he too is ready to be back in the classroom. “I feel like everything has slid a week back,” he said.

Barker, who teaches math and humanities at George Manierre Elementary School, said he needs to finish evaluating his new students, call parents and build his student library.

One of the first things on the agenda, however, will be talking to his students about what the strike meant. “Is there anywhere that you go in life when you do have to speak up for yourself when there’s a perceived injustice?”

Barker said he will have to play some catch up and will have to do a quick review of school procedures. He hopes to be back in school on Friday or Monday.

David Temkin, a CPS social worker, said he has been affected by the strike as a teacher and a parent. He has two daughters in CPS, one in first grade, the other in second grade. “But in what battle don’t we have casualties?” Temkin said.

Although students suffer during a strike, Temkin said such action makes it possible for teachers to be heard. "We’ve been struggling to have a voice at the table,” he said. “The board doesn’t listen. Maybe they’re start to listen now.”

School and union officials met late into the night Wednesday, mainly discussing two key issues that have separated them: evaluations and the rehiring of laid-off teachers.

Mary Lou Goss and Sumner Elementary School teachers are greeted by their students at rally near John Marshall High School in Chicago on Wednesday.
—E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/MCT

“We feel like we’re in a pretty good place, we’ve made a lot of progress today,” Lewis said as she left the talks shortly before midnight. “We spent a lot of time on evaluation. We still have a lot of work to do but it seems like we’re definitely coming much closer together than we were certainly this morning.”

Lewis said parents should not bank on classes Thursday but said, “Let’s hope for Friday.”

Chicago school board president David Vitale agreed significant progress had been made during talks Wednesday.

“We had really good discussions and proposals on the most difficult issues that we face,” Vitale said. “We’re hopeful we can actually come together around this.

“Unfortunately they’re not going to be back to school tomorrow, and we’ll hope for Friday.”

The progress was reported after Chicago Public Schools officials presented a revised contract proposal to the union on Tuesday and it was reviewed and discussed during talks Wednesday.

Under the proposal, teacher raises would be structured differently, as requested by the union; 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.

The new proposal also removes the district's ability to rescind raises because of an economic crisis. The board stripped teachers of a 4 percent raise last year, sparking union distrust of the mayor.

The issues of recall and how to evaluate teachers have been cited as crucial in recent days, while there has been little if any debate over a proposed salary boost that would average 16 percent over four years.

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To pay for those raises, which could cost the cash-starved district $320 million over four years, other expenses would have to be cut. The money-saving tactics could include closing schools and shifting public school students to charters that mostly hire lower-paid, nonunion workers and get additional funding from philanthropic sources.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel did not specify how the district would pay for the raises, saying only that "they've worked through those issues" and "teachers are the most important resource."

He also said there is no specific target for the number of new charter schools that will be added to the district. "I don't have a fixed number," he said, noting that 19,000 students who applied for charters were turned away for lack of space.

In a proposal to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made earlier this year, the district proposed opening 60 charter schools over five years.

Vol. 32, Issue 04

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