M. Spencer Green, Associated Press
CHICAGO — As they prepared for a vote that could end Chicago's first teachers strike in 25 years, teachers were balancing their desire to get back to class with lingering doubts and questions about a proposed contract that could mean major changes to their pay and job security.
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said she expected union delegates to have a possibly lengthy debate when they reconvene Tuesday afternoon, two days after refusing to end the strike because they hadn't seen all the contract details.
She said she wouldn't tell union delegates how to vote when they consider calling off the strike Tuesday. But Lewis said she would vote for the proposal, calling it the best deal negotiators could get.
"I don't think it's a great deal," Lewis said. "I'm just more proud of our union. The contract is the contract. It's nothing that I take ownership over."
Many teachers said they felt conflicted: They were eager to go back to work but determined to see their efforts through to the end.
"I'm desperately wanting to get back to my lab experiments with my kids," said Heath Davis, a seventh-grade science teacher who was picketing outside Goethe Elementary School on the city's West Side.
Davis was optimistic that Tuesday's vote could end the strike that has kept 350,000 students out of the classroom. But he said teachers still had concerns about the academic calendar, pensions and resources for special education, in addition to the more publicly discussed issues of tying teacher evaluations to student test scores and recalling laid-off teachers when schools close.
"We don't want to move too quickly," said Davis, a delegate who was consulting with other teachers at his school before deciding how to vote. "We want to make sure our questions are answered."
Tuesday's vote was not on the contract offer itself, but on whether to continue the strike. The contract must be submitted to a vote of the full union membership before it is formally ratified.
Some union delegates were taking straw polls of rank-and-file teachers to measure support for a settlement.
Craig Richmond, a counselor at Richard Yates Elementary School in northwest Chicago, voted to continue to the strike as a way to pressure the district on the closure of schools with poor performance or declining enrollment. The former music teacher has lost his job three times in such closures.
He described his action as a protest vote, but he recognized that continuing to strike could erode community support and do more harm than good.
"It's a huge gamble," he acknowledged. "The kids would lose out. It doesn't feel good to me to have that position."
Union leaders say trust has become a critical factor after months of strained relations with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the school board, and that Emanuel's effort to get a judge to order the teachers back to class could become an obstacle.
But teachers have begun feeling pressure to decide quickly on the tentative contract that labor and education experts — and even some union leaders — called a good deal for the union after a long stretch of setbacks nationally for organized labor.
"It's risky to extend the strike when everyone was expecting the strike to be over," said Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.
Irked by the union's two-day delay in voting on whether to send children back to school, Emanuel took the matter into court Monday. A judge has called a hearing for Wednesday to rule on the city's request for an injunction ordering the teachers back to work.
Both sides have only released summaries of the proposed agreement. But outside observers said the tentative contract appears to be a win for the union's 25,000 teachers.
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