September 14, 2012 12:04:22 PM
CHICAGO -- More than 350,000 students remain out of their classrooms as bargaining to end Chicago's teachers strike dragged into Friday ahead of an afternoon union gathering where a vote could stamp approval on any deal.
Rank-and-file teachers prepared to return to the streets for morning rallies to press the union's demands that laid-off instructors be given first shot at job openings and for implementation of a teacher evaluation system that does not rely heavily on student test results.
Contract talks pushed on for more than 15 hours Thursday with little word of progress until negotiators called it quits close to 1 a.m. Friday. Chicago School Board President David Vitale said the two sides had worked past the contentious evaluations issue -- though he didn't elaborate -- and had begun crunching numbers on financial matters.
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said the two sides had many "productive" conversations but she declined to describe the talks in detail. She and Vitale said they hope students can be back in class Monday.
"It was a long day. There were some creative ideas passed around, but we still do not have an agreement," Lewis said.
The union called a meeting for this afternoon of some 700 delegates who would be required to approve any contract settlement with a majority vote. The meeting could be used to present an agreement or merely to update union members on where the negotiations stand.
The strike by more than 25,000 teachers in the nation's third-largest school district has idled many youths and children, leaving some unsupervised in gang-dominated neighborhoods. It also has been a potent display of union power at a time when organized labor has lost ground around the nation.
School district officials said the main sticking points remained the evaluation system and the union's demands that laid-off teachers get top consideration for rehiring. The district worries that could result in principals being forced to hire unsuitable teachers.
The union says using student test scores to evaluate teacher performance is unfair, arguing that poor test results can be the result of poverty, hunger and other conditions beyond their control. Under an older proposal by the district, the union estimated that 6,000 teachers could lose their jobs within two years.
An offer made late Wednesday included provisions that would have protected tenured teachers from dismissal in the first year of the evaluations. It also altered categories that teachers can be rated on and added an appeals process. A spokeswoman said late Thursday that the two sides have held 35 meetings over 90 hours on the teacher evaluations issue.
The other outstanding issue was whether laid-off teachers should have first shot at open jobs. School officials plan to close 100 schools "as soon as the ink is dry" on a new contract, unfairly displacing teachers, many African-American, who work in struggling schools that often don't have adequate resources, Lewis said this week.
The union is trying to win assurances that laid-off but qualified teachers get dibs on jobs anywhere in the district. But Illinois law gives individual principals in Chicago the right to hire the teachers they want, and Emanuel argues it's unfair to hold principals accountable for their schools' performance if they can't pick their own teams.
The district has offered a compromise. If schools close, teachers would have the first right to jobs matching their qualifications where schools absorb the children from the closed school. The proposal also includes provisions for teachers who aren't hired, including severance.
It wasn't clear if the union had accepted the proposal, but Lewis said it "did not intend to sign an agreement until these matters are addressed."
Late Thursday, the school board said its latest proposal was in the hands of the union and that the union bargaining team was meeting separately to discuss it. Board spokeswoman Becky Carroll had expected a response later in the night.
"We are at the brink of getting all the key issues addressed so that we can move forward with getting a deal and getting our kids back to school," she said. "We've made many modifications over the last several days to our proposal. We feel that we're there. And at this point, it's in the CTU's hands to bring it to a close."
When negotiations resumed Thursday morning, Lewis predicted that students could be back in class by Monday, a week after the teachers walked out. District officials expressed similar optimism, and others noted a more focused atmosphere in the talks.
"There's a sense of urgency today," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who stopped by the hotel where the negotiators were working. Earlier in the week, Jackson said the two sides were talking past each other and not making progress.
The new optimism also was evident among teachers who marched Thursday along Michigan Avenue. They were joined by marching bands and protesters carrying balloons, pushing strollers and waving Chicago flags.
In the crowd was high school history teacher Anthony Smith, who wants the district to be fair and give all public schools the same resources so they can succeed and teachers don't lose their jobs.
"One school being closed down because they didn't give it proper resources and proper attention is unfair," said Smith, a 25-year classroom veteran.
The walkout is the first Chicago teachers strike in 25 years. A 1987 walkout lasted 19 days. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has called the strike unnecessary and repeatedly urged the union to continue the negotiations once students are back in class.