Teachers Union Votes to Suspend Chicago Schools Strike

Chicago teacher-union delegates voted today to suspend the city’s first school strike in 25 years, a day after Mayor Rahm Emanuel sought a court order to force educators back to work.

The decision by the union’s more than 800-member House of Delegates means that 350,000 students will be back in class tomorrow. The vote to end the walkout was about “98 to 2 percent,” said Karen Lewis, president of the 30,000-member Chicago Teachers Union.

“We said it was time, that we couldn’t solve all the problems of the world in one contract, and it was time to end the strike,” Lewis said.

Emanuel called the settlement “an honest compromise,” in remarks at Walter Payton College Prep, one of the system’s premier selective-enrollment schools.

“It means a new day and a new direction for Chicago Public Schools,” he said. “This time our taxpayers are paying less and our kids are getting more.”

The contract carries an annual price tag of about $74 million, for a total of $295 million over four years, according to a statement released during the weekend by the Chicago Board of Education. The district faces a 2013 deficit of $1 billion.

The strike that began Sept. 10 was the most public opposition to Emanuel since the former chief of staff to President Barack Obama took office 16 months ago with a pledge to restructure the city’s operations. Lowering labor costs is central to Emanuel’s initiatives.

‘Good Faith’

Asked what message she had for the mayor, Lewis said, “I hope he agrees to this in good faith.”

The teachers had been negotiating with the mayor since November over his efforts to lengthen the school day and year, as well as the board’s decision to cancel a 4 percent pay increase. In the last Chicago teachers strike, in 1987, union members walked out for four weeks.

Rank-and-file members of the union will vote on the contract “in a couple of weeks,” Lewis said. The delegates’ decision made moot a court hearing set for tomorrow to consider the board of education’s demand that a judge force teachers back to work.

The union cited the city’s court filing as an example of Emanuel making it more difficult to reach an agreement, calling it “a vindictive act instigated by the mayor.”

Rallying Supporters

Both sides sought to rally support even as the delegates gathered to vote. Backers of Emanuel and the school board aired television ads that included excerpts from local newspapers applauding the contract’s longer school day and more control for principals over teacher hiring.

Supporters of the union released an ad lauding “their fight for students and parents.” Stand Up! Chicago, a coalition of community and labor organizations, held several events where parents and students expressed their support for the teachers.

The vote by union delegates came two days after they declined to suspend the strike, even though Lewis had said contract language would “assuage” members’ concerns about a new teacher-evaluation process.

Teacher evaluations have been central to delegate deliberations because the district’s deficit is expected to result in the eventual closing of scores of schools. That will be unavoidable, regardless of how the strike is settled, said Paul Vallas, who was the Chicago schools chief executive officer from 1995 to 2001 and now runs Bridgeport, Connecticut, schools.

‘Exhausted Reserves’

“This is a district that has exhausted its reserves,” he said in an interview last week. “The settlement itself is going to create pressure to cut even more, ultimately impacting more teachers, impacting more schools. It’s inevitable. It’s like a death spiral.”

Chicago Public Schools issued details of the contract last weekend that said it was for three years with an option for a fourth. It stated that “student growth” will account for 25 percent of a teacher’s evaluation in the first two years of the pact, and 30 percent in the third. A new state law requires the 30 percent benchmark.

A “student survey will be piloted” in the contract’s second year and would contribute to 10 percent of the teacher evaluation, according to the school system. The contract would provide a pay increase of more than 16 percent over four years.

Emanuel previously extended Chicago’s school day to 7 hours from 5 hours and 45 minutes at elementary schools, and to 7 1/2 hours from 7 hours at most high schools. The school year was lengthened to 180 days, from 170, which had been one of the shortest in the U.S.

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