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Chicago teachers strike for first time in 25 years; contingency sites ready, charters remain open

Karen Lewis president Chicago Teachers UniVice president Jesse Sharkey talk medias Chicago Public Schools will be Strike this Monday. Sunday

Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union and Vice president Jesse Sharkey talk to the media as Chicago Public Schools will be on Strike this Monday. Sunday Sept 9, 2012 | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Chicago Teachers Union Contract Talks by the Numbers

1987 = last CTU strike, 19 days.

350,000 = students affected (50,000 others in charter schools not impacted).

30,000 = CTU teachers & educational personnel planning to walk out.

144 = CPS strike-contingency schools offering food & activities (8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.).

11,000 = CPS athletes whose fall sports could be impacted.

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Updated: October 11, 2012 6:16AM



For the first time in 25 years, Chicago’s teachers are on strike.

“Negotiations have been intense but productive, however we have failed to reach an agreement that will prevent a labor strike,” Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said at a dramatic 10 p.m. Sunday press conference. “Real school will not be open [Monday]. ... No CTU member will be inside our schools.

“Please seek alternative care for your children.”

The announcement was quickly blasted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel as “a strike of choice” that didn’t have to happen if talks continued. He repeatedly declared: “My team is available now.”

But Lewis, just before the midnight strike deadline, said talks wouldn’t resume until Monday. She said she texted School Board President David Vitale and they agreed to meet Monday.

A “disappointed” Emanuel said the latest deal offered to the teachers was “very respectful of our teachers and is right by our children.”

“The issues that remain are minor,” Emanuel said. “This is totally unnecessary. It’s avoidable and our kids don’t deserve this. ... This is a strike of choice.

“It’s down to two issues — finish it.”

Although union officials say more topics are still being debated, the mayor said the two remaining stumbling blocks involve re-hiring laid off teachers from schools that get shut down or shaken up and a new teacher evaluation process that the union says puts far too much weight on student test scores.

“The kids of Chicago belong in the classroom,” the mayor said during a late-night press conference at the Harold Washington Library, flanked by his negotiators.

Vitale said as talks wound down at the union’s Merchandise Mart offices, he tried for two hours to meet one-on-one with Lewis. But he said couldn’t reach her. He later described the negotiations as “the most unbelievable process I’ve ever been through. I don’t quite know how to explain it.”

Lewis said she never got Vitale’s message until late. “I was on phone calls with national and other labor leaders,” she explained.

Other key union leaders were still talking with Beth Swanson — Emanuel’s deputy mayor for education and his representative in the talks — during Vitale’s attempts to reach Lewis, said CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey.

Sunday night’s drama was a roller coaster for teachers, parents and students wondering whether school was on Monday morning — whether students would be greeted by teachers in classrooms or on picket lines. Teachers have been asked to picket outside their own schools.

Progress had been made over the weekend regarding teacher pay, but not enough on teacher evaluations, job security or classroom conditions to entice union members to sign a contract, Lewis said.

“We do not intend to sign an agreement until all matters of our contract are addressed,” Lewis said. “We are committed to staying at the table.”

The school board’s last offer included a three percent raise the first year and two percent raises the next three years — a slight increase from an earlier offer of two percent raises in each of the next four years.

The package, which would cost $400 million, keeps increases for experience and credentials with some modifications.

Vitale said the contract amounted to a 16 percent raise over four years for the average teacher when factoring other increases. And the raises could not be rescinded for lack of funds — which is what happened this past school year, angering teachers and helping to set the stage for Monday’s strike.

“This is not a small commitment we’re making at a time when your fiscal situation is really challenged,” Vitale said. A $1 billion deficit awaits the system at the end of this school year, officials have estimated. And the district drained its reserve funds to plug this year’s budget.

Chicago Teachers Union delegates had been told to stay up late in case the two sides reach an accord. But no House of Delegates meeting was ever called — and Lewis said her members would be outside their schools Monday walking the picket line.

The strike will not impact charter schools, which rely on non-CTU teachers.

CPS set its “Children First” plan in play after the union’s decision, referring parents without other childcare options to 144 schools it would keep open with non-union personnel from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. starting Monday for as long as the strike lasts.

Churches and other not-for-profit organizations also stepped up to ensure that children would not be left on Chicago’s streets, already plagued this year by an onslaught of violence.

“The response has been extraordinary, truly extraordinary,” Vitale said Sunday night. “Chicagoans should be proud of how their city has responded to the needs of kids.”

Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s floor leader and the former longtime chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee, said the economic issues are not the hangup.

“They’re close on the economic parts — but there are other issues that are holding it up and preventing them from signing off on the economic package,” he said.

But he did allow that he doesn’t think a short strike would be “hugely devastating.”

“We’ve been talking about it for weeks,” O’Connor said. “Everybody has been steeling themselves for it. That being the case, you just hope that if they go out they keep bargaining and working to get it done.

“If it’s a protracted strike, it may be something that has a lingering effect. If it’s not, people in Chicago have seen this coming. The idea that it’s here — nobody should be surprised. I don’t think it’s the end of the world or that it will have long lasting repercussions.”

Key disputed issues in the talks were teacher cost of living raises, additional pay for experience, job security in the face of annual school closures and staff shakeups, and a new teacher evaluation process that ties teacher ratings in part to student test score growth.

“Evaluate us on what we do, not on the lives of our children we do not control,” Lewis said Sunday, denouncing the online process by which teacher evaluators were being trained.

CTU officials contend that CPS’ offer of raises over the next four years does not fairly compensate them for the 4 percent raise they lost this past school year and the longer and “harder” school year they will face this school year, with the introduction of a tougher new curriculum.

The union also has pushed for improved working conditions, such as smaller class sizes, more libraries, air-conditioned schools, and more social workers and counselors to address the increasing needs of students surrounded by violence — all big-ticket items. CPS officials contend they are seeking a “fair” contract, with raises for teachers, but are limited by funding and the threat of a $1 billion deficit at the end of this school year.

In front of Chicago Teachers Union strike headquarters Sunday afternoon at the corner of Marshfield and Van Buren, a steady stream of teachers picked up picket signs and T-shirts.

“I’m optimistic but at the same I’m realistic,” said Ollie Allen, a fifth-grade teacher at Mount Vernon elementary school. “I would like to see a fair contract. I want to see fair pay, job security and a better classroom environment that’s fair to students and teachers.”

Tracy Baldwin, who has a 6-year-old at Coonley School, said she thinks several parents had accepted the strike as inevitable. She said she thinks their frustration will really boil over if the strike lasts longer than a couple of days.

“I think it’s going to divide our city,” Baldwin said, “and it’s going to get ugly.”

Contributing: Fran Spielman, LeeAnn Shelton, Francine Knowles, Jon Seidel



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