Negotiations between teachers union, Chicago School Board down to the wire

Almost 30,000 teachers and staff members could strike Monday if a deal is not struck between the teachers union and the school board in Chicago. The strike is over proposed reforms by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Sitthixay Ditthavong/AP
Teachers and pro-teacher community groups rally in front of a building the Chicago Teachers Union has designated its strike headquarters on Saturday in Chicago. The union has vowed to strike on Monday if an agreement over teachers' contracts is not reached with Chicago Public Schools by Monday.

Negotiations between the Chicago Teachers Union and the nation's third-largest school district were going down to the wire on Sunday, as teachers threaten to strike on Monday over Mayor Rahm Emanuel's demand for sweeping school reforms.

Both sides expressed varying degrees of optimism on Saturday night about chances for a resolution, although school district officials sounded more hopeful than union leaders. School board President David Vitale said he thought the district's latest proposal was "very close" to what was needed for a deal. Talks resume on Sunday morning.

Some 29,000 teachers and support staff could walk off the job on Monday, setting up a confrontation between Emanuel, President Barack Obama's former top White House aide, and organized labor in the president's home city.

Parents have been scrambling to find alternate arrangements for students, and community leaders have begged both sides to come to an agreement and keep children in school.

"We can't afford to have young people in harm's way," said Cy Fields, senior pastor of New Landmark Missionary Baptist Church, located in a violence-torn community on the city's west side. The church plans a pro-education rally on Sunday morning, and is among about 60 churches planning to take in children for safe activities if teachers strike.

Fields said union and school officials should "get into a room and don't come out until the deal gets done."

A protracted stoppage could hurt relations between Obama's Democrats and national labor unions, who are among the biggest financial supporters of the Democratic Party and will be needed by the party to help get out the vote in the Nov. 6 election.

While Emanuel has not attended the talks, he and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis have clashed. She has accused him of being a bully and using profanity in private meetings.

Lewis said on Saturday night that while the district's position had improved, she would not call it "dramatically improved."

The union opened its strike headquarters on Saturday to hand out strike signs and red union t-shirts.

At issue are teacher pay and school reforms such as tougher teacher evaluations that are at the heart of the national debate on improving struggling urban schools.

'A LOT AT STAKE'

Both sides in Chicago agree the city's public schools need fixing. Chicago fourth-grade and eighth-grade students lag national averages in a key test of reading ability, according to the US Department of Education. One union complaint is that class sizes are far too big.

Emanuel, who has a reputation as a tough negotiator, is demanding that teacher evaluations be tied to standardized test results, a move the union is resisting. He also has pushed through a longer school day this year.

Only about 60 percent of high school students in Chicago graduate, compared with a national average of 75 percent and more than 90 percent in some affluent Chicago suburbs.

More than 80 percent of the 402,000 students in Chicago public schools qualify for free lunches because they are from low-income families.

The Chicago Public Schools say they have little room to maneuver on salary, with both the state and the city in dire financial straits. The district has a projected $3 billion deficit over the next three years and faces a crushing burden of pensions promised to retiring teachers.

The Chicago School Board took back a scheduled 4 percent pay raise for teachers last year because of budget problems. Emanuel is offering a 2 percent pay increase annually over the next four years. The union wants the rescinded raise restored, plus higher annual increases.

Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the teachers union, said on Saturday his own two children were attending Chicago Public Schools. He expressed hope the conflict would be resolved without a strike.

"My young one just started kindergarten four days ago, and so there's a lot at stake for all of us," Sharkey said.

Reporting By Mary Wisniewski; editing by Peter Cooney.

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