Education Funding

Chicago Strike Enters Day Four With Rumblings of Resolution

Talks drag on, with school closings in spotlight
By Ellen Jean Hirst, The Chicago Tribune (MCT), Bridget Doyle, The Chicago Tribune (MCT), Hal Dardick, The Chicago Tribune (MCT) & Kristen Mack, The Chicago Tribune (MCT) — September 13, 2012 7 min read
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.
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As negotiations began this morning between the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools, the two sides said they were still confident of reaching an agreement today but were divided on how soon classes can resume.

On a scale of 1-10, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said “I’m a 9" on a deal being reached today. But she said classes may not resume until Monday because the union’s House of Delegates would have to approve ending the strike.

“We’re hoping we can tighten up some of the things we talked about yesterday. . .and get this thing done,” Lewis told reporters. Barbara Byrd-Bennett, chief education officer with Chicago Public Schools, was equally confident of a deal today but said she still thinks kids could be back in school on Friday.

“I can really, really say to you, if we stick to the issues, unless something really nutsy happens, kids can be back in school (tomorrow).”

Lewis said that was “highly unlikely,” even if the two sides come to an agreement today.

The House of Delegates likely wouldn’t be able to meet until Friday because “there are still too many issues on the table” to finish negotiations early today, Lewis said.

But she added, “I think the mayor wants to get this done,” and she is “praying” the district’s 350,000 children will be back in school on Monday.

CTU delegates said Thursday they’ve been notified to attend a House of Delegates meeting at 2 p.m. Friday, where the more than 700 delegates can vote to end the strike, pending approval of the contract by the union’s full membership.

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.

If the delegates vote to end the strike, student and teachers will likely return to class Monday. But it may still take a week or more before the union’s 26,000 members officially vote to ratify the new teachers contract.

Teachers at the picket line at Walt Disney Magnet School said they liked what they’ve heard so far from the contract talks.

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

The picket line looked more like a family reunion than a strike.

Gallons of coffee and piles of snacks like popcorn and energy bars lay on a table while a cooler of ice-cold water bottles stood nearby. Children ran around the sidewalk laughing, and teachers and their family members hugged and chanted. A group sang ‘Happy birthday’ to a young child in both English and Spanish.

Fran Feeley, 44, a librarian at Inter-American Magnet School, said he had “mixed-feelings” about the news. While Feeley doesn’t want the strike to carry on, he said certain issues need to be addressed.

“I don’t accept the idea that charter schools and vouchers and testing kids eight weeks a year is going to solve the problems facing the public schools,” he said.

At the picket line outside CPS headquarters in the Loop, teachers said they hoped 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 soon.

Mary Lou Goss and Sumner Elementary School teachers are greeted by their students at rally near John Marshall High School in Chicago on Wednesday.

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

“Just got home,” Lewis texted back.

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 the strike 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.

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.

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.

Most parents dropping off their children at Walt Disney Magnet School on Thursday morning were smiling, saying they’re hopeful the teacher’s strike will come to an end this week.

“I think it’s great,” said Rebecca Eden-Eichenlaub, as she stood outside the school around 8:45 am with her 7-year-old triples. “I think if it’s a fair compromise on both sides, the sooner we can get the kids in, the better.”

All this week, Eden-Eichenlaub said she’s been dropping her children off at the Chicago Park District, which has day programs for kids that last until at least 3:30 p.m. There, the triplets played games and made arts and crafts in what they jokingly called “strike camp.”

But she decided to bring them to Walt Disney School, 4140 North Marine Drive, also a Children First site, when she learned it extended its hours to 2:30 p.m.

“Who’s going to take their kids to some place for three hours?” she said. “That doesn’t make sense.”

As a dozen students at Walt Disney School played on fields behind her, Gabriela Montoya, 37, said her two children, ages 7 and 8, are anxious to return to their classrooms at Greeley Elementary in the Lakeview neighborhood.

Montoya said she’s been following the news to keep track of the negotiations. When she learned the two sides hinted children could be back in their school desks as early as Friday, she said she was relieved.

She said she’s been able to care for the children on certain days, but dropped them off at Walt Disney School today and on Tuesday because she had plans to volunteer at a food pantry.

“The kids miss school so much,” she said. “They want to see their friends and learn new things.”

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Copyright (c) 2012, The Chicago Tribune. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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