Strike talks in Chicago move toward end game

By Sophia Tareen

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Sept. 14 2012 6:20 a.m. MDT

Two-year-old identical twins Colton and Lucas Jordan join thousands of public school teachers and their supporters as they march along Chicago's Michigan Avenue, protesting against Penny Pritzker, whom they accuse of benefiting from her position on the boards of both the Chicago Board of Education and Hyatt Hotels on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012.

Sitthixay Ditthavong, Associated Press

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 Friday 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."

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