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Chicago school negotiators take up new offer as strike deadline nears

The Chicago Teachers Uni officially opened its “Strike Headquarters” Saturday afternoas members prepared case they are forced walk off their

The Chicago Teachers Union officially opened its “Strike Headquarters” Saturday afternoon as members prepared in case they are forced to walk off their jobs on Monday, September 10th, 2012. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Time

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Updated: October 10, 2012 6:42AM

Chicago teacher contract talks resumed Sunday as political pressure mounts for union leaders to push back Monday’s strike deadline if no resolution is reached.

Chicago Public Schools officials insisted they had placed a “dramatically” better offer in front of union leaders Saturday, but Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said she still had “big issues’’ with it.

If the two sides come to an agreement, the House of Delegates must be convened to vote on whether to call off the strike.

Sue Garza, a delegate at Jane Addams School, said delegates were told, “You’re on call 24 hours so keep your phone near.”

Members are “together 150,000 percent” so she believes the House Of Delegates could even get a quorum at midnight. If no call comes, delegates are supposed to show up at their home schools at 6:30 a.m. Monday with pickets, she said.

A steady flow of teachers pulled up in front of Chicago Teachers Union strike headquarters Sunday at the corner of Marshfield and Van Buren. They were there to pick up picket signs and T-shirts.

“I’m optimistic but at the same I’m realistic,” said Ollie Allen, a fifth-grade teacher at Mount Vernon elementary school. I would like to see a fair contract. I want to see fair pay, job security and a better classroom environment that’s fair to students and teachers. Allen, a delegate, said any notification of a possible deal could come as late as midnight.

“We’ve been told to keep our cell phones handy,” she said.

Lewis told CNN in a Sunday morning interview that, regarding negotiations over teacher pay in particular, “We have some issues there. They’re not where they ought to be.”

“On the pay issue we’ve had some progress as of yesterday for the first time, and it’s sort of annoying that we have to wait for the eleventh hour to get these kinds of issues done,” Lewis told the network.

She told CNN the union is not currently planning or discussing the possibility of teachers staying on the job past Monday’s deadline should talks fail.

“I am certainly hopeful that we can come to some sort of understanding and agreement, but if not, we know that our members are prepared for tomorrow,” Lewis said.

Some 33 aldermen sent a letter to Lewis late Saturday, acknowledging the union’s right to strike but asking her to “allow teachers to stay in the classroom” while both sides keep negotiating if a package isn’t sealed Sunday.

Only the House of Delegates could grant such an extension, but aldermen are hoping Lewis will ask them Sunday to do so, if necessary, said Ald. Anthony Beale (9th). Beale said he emailed Lewis the letter about a half-hour before Saturday talks ended.

“We’re asking her to take those steps to keep kids in the classroom,’’ Beale told the Chicago Sun-Times. “We know how detrimental [a strike] would be to our kids....You can still negotiate in good faith while kids are in the classroom.’’

On Saturday, Lewis said about the letters: “It would be nice if aldermen did not wait until the last minute to talk to us. The aldermen have been sitting on the sidelines for the last 2½ years, while all our rights have been taken away from us.’’

Emerging from nearly nine hours of talks Saturday night, School Board President David Vitale said he had “high hopes’’ that the parties could get to “the end game’’ Sunday and avert what would be the first Chicago teachers strike in 25 years. Among those joining him at union headquarters Saturday was Beth Swanson, deputy mayor of education and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s key liason with the school system.

The Board of Education’s revised proposal presented Saturday addressed the major issues of compensation, merit pay, recall of laid off teachers and health care, Vitale said. He said the district had moved “dramatically on almost all of these issues.’’

And, Vitale indicated there was still some wiggle room left. Asked if the proposal represented the Board’s “last, best offer,’’ he said, “No. We keep updating it.’’ However, he added, “There obviously is a limit.’’ The district estimates its deficit will balloon to $1 billion by school year’s end.

CPS’ last public offer was four years of 2 percent raises, but with no additional pay increase based on experience — something union officials consider critical. CTU leaders also have emphasized that teachers were denied a promised 4 percent raise this past school year, and now face a “longer, harder’’ school day and year, with the introduction of a new, tougher curriculum, a new teacher evaluation system and the longer school day and school year that was a cornerstone of Emanuel’s mayoral campaign.

Lewis was far less positive about the system’s latest offer.

Speaking to reporters outside CTU headquarters at the Merchandise Mart, Lewis conceded the sides were “closer” and the district had presented an “improved” offer but “I don’t know that I would use the term dramatically.’’

She said the union still had “big issues’’ with the major items in the proposal.

With the right offer, Lewis said, the House of Delegates could be convened on “a moment’s notice’’ Sunday, “but as of now I can’t say we’re going to do that.’’ A quorum would be needed for their decision to stick.

Playing an increasingly important role Sunday will be the CTU’s larger bargaining unit — called “the big bargaining team’’ — of roughly 40 members, who also were summoned to the Mart Saturday and Sunday.

Seated in a large meeting room across the hall from the core negotiating session, they are expected to help union leaders decide if any Sunday revisions complete a package enough to merit convening the House of Delegates for a vote on the package. Saturday’s aldermanic letter gives them additional political cover to more seriously consider recommending an extention of the deadline to let schools remain in session while talks continue.

“Over 350,000 CPS students and their families would be adversely affected by a strike,’’ the letter said. “In addition to the obvious disruption a strike would cause our students, we are concerned it would jeopardize the ability of college-bound seniors to meet strict college application deadlines.

“Further, for many of our students for whom athletics is the only path to a college scholarship, a strike would deny them the opportunity to play on their high school sports teams where they could be scouted and recruited by colleges and universities and get a chance at a better future.’’

Contributing: Kara Spak, Fran Spielman

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