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Chicago teachers contract talks break down: Impending strike?

Contract negotiations between the Chicago Teacher’s Union and the Chicago Public Schools stalled Thursday. A similar impasse resulted in an eight-day teacher strike in 2012.

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    Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Karen Lewis, center, speaks at a news conference Thursday, in Chicago.Lewis says negotiations have broken down days ahead of the teachers' contract expiring.
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A Chicago Teacher’s Union official announced Thursday that the union has called off contract talks with the public school system. Nevertheless, it is unclear whether the teacher’s union will repeat the strike that kept students out of school for 8 days and gained nationwide attention in 2012.

Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey said it is "highly unlikely" that an agreement will be reached before the current contract expires on Tuesday. For the time being, the two sides are at an impasse, but Ms. Sharkey confirmed that the union is willing to continue talks with the Chicago Public Schools in the future.

"Nothing is off the table," Mr. Sharkey said. "We had hoped to be able to make a deal."

On Wednesday, the Board of Education approved two borrowing measures totaling $1.13 billion, aiming to boost the district's cash flow. Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) also signed a school funding bill into law that day. Nevertheless, the Chicago school system is currently facing a $1.1 billion deficit in its upcoming fiscal 2016 budget.

A $600 million-plus pension payment is also due next week, and city and schools officials have warned that payment could essentially empty the district's checking account, the Chicago Tribune reported.

The Chicago School board President David Vitale said he expects state legislators will extend the deadline, and warned that there would be severe consequences if the Chicago Public School system is forced to make the payment by Tuesday.

"We obviously don't want to destroy the district. We don't want to lay off hundreds, if not thousands of people," he said in an interview.

But union President Karen Lewis also told the Tribune that she does fear mass layoffs and budget cuts. Meanwhile, Sharkey said that Chicago teachers would be willing to accept a salary freeze, but only if the district agrees to improvements at the schools, including cost-free changes like limits on standardized tests and paperwork.

Ensuring that a new contract is obtained without another strike will be a major test for Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) as he begins his second term. The mayor has a notoriously tense relationship with the teacher’s union following the 2012 strikes and his decision to close 50 schools in 2013.

The 2012 strike also exposed a rift in the Democratic Party over education policy that had existed previously, but had never been seen in such stark relief, the Monitor’s Amanda Paulson reported that year.  

Talks between the union and the schools have previously continued after the expiration of a contract, Sharkey confirmed. But it will be important to reach an agreement before schools reopen in the fall. The school system currently serves 400,000 students.

This report includes material from Reuters.

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