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City Hall explores legal options in teachers strike

Mayor Rahm Emanuel. File photo.   |  Sun-Times files

Mayor Rahm Emanuel. File photo. | Sun-Times files

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Updated: October 15, 2012 9:34AM

With the Chicago teachers strike expected to drag on all week, maybe longer, aldermen on Wednesday braced for the political fallout from angry parents as City Hall researched possible legal solutions.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and School Board President David Vitale have argued that the teacher evaluation and rehiring issues that stand as the biggest roadblocks to an agreement are “not strikeable,” setting the stage for a possible court injunction.

At a City Hall strategy session prior to Wednesday’s City Council meeting, there was preliminary talk of having parents whose children attend Chicago Public Schools file a lawsuit aimed at convincing a federal judge to order the teachers back to school.

“The corporation counsel is meeting with labor lawyers, but I don’t know how much effort we should be putting into that,” said a source familiar with the discussions.

“If they stopped meeting or refused to meet, then somebody could go to court. But right now, they’re still meeting. There’s just no sense of urgency on the union’s part.”

Emanuel said again Wednesday that negotiations are “down to two final issues” and he would prefer to “get this done at the table.”

But, when asked whether he has ruled out the possibility of seeking a court injunction, the mayor said, “No, I’m not. ... It’s not a ruling in or ruling out. ... I want people to have the same sense of urgency with the same imperative of where I think you can separate things.”

The mayor tried to regain the upper hand in the all-important public relations war by urging teachers to return to the classroom while nonstop negotiations continue.

He argued that, if the city of Boston managed to work through the thorny teacher evaluation and rehiring issues without a strike, Chicago teachers should be able to return to the classroom while their union leaders negotiate.

“Of the two issues that are really at the crux here, there is nothing that can’t be worked through while our kids stay in the classroom,” the mayor said, ignoring the fact that the CTU would be forfeiting its political leverage by calling off the strike.

“My staff, as well as the Chicago Public School leadership team, is committed to working through these issues, never leaving the table, to get this job done. And those issues can be negotiated simultaneously while our kids are in the classroom learning. … Boston took two years. They didn’t miss any school.”

The mayor also continued to dance around the elephant in the room: How he will pay for the 16 percent pay raise, if the CTU ultimately agrees to that.

That has led to rampant speculation that CPS intends to close more than 100 under-utilized schools, laying off thousands of teachers, driving up class size and underscoring the need for a teacher recall policy that gives laid off teachers a second chance.

Asked Wednesday how many schools he intends to close, Emanuel said, “Nobody knows yet because we haven’t worked through this issue yet. There have been other issues ahead of that. That has not been decided at this point. I don’t know what they’re gonna do for consolidations.”

With no resolution in sight, aldermen attending Wednesday’s City Council meeting prepared for the strike to drag on into next week and for parental tempers to rise to a boil.

“It’s like that relative or that school buddy you had who stayed for one week, then it ended up being three weeks, and now you’re just tired of him and the blame goes all the way around,” said Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th). “I am worried that a prolonged strike will have ill feelings all around the board: myself, the mayor, teachers union, CPS. Everyone will eventually get blamed if it goes longer.”

Despite the bad blood between Emanuel and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, Sawyer said it’s time for the two to put aside their personality feud, go behind closed doors and hammer out an agreement.

“They’re both professional — over and above their personal feelings toward each other,” said Sawyer, who said his South Side ward is home to “thousands” of teachers.

“Once they get to the room and understand that the children are the focus, they will get a deal done. ... I’m confident that will happen.”

Earlier this week, aldermen were almost universal in blaming the union for Chicago’s first teachers strike in 25 years. They came in and out of City Hall briefings parroting the mayor’s scripted talking points about “a strike of choice” and about the need for principals to pick their own teachers.

On Wednesday, a few frustrated aldermen dared to blame Emanuel for triggering the strike by provoking teachers.

“The whole aspect of how this started down that road and who started it. ... It was from Day One about [the mayor] demonizing the teachers. The teachers aren’t the bad guys in this,” said Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd).

“When they went down to Springfield and raised up that [strike authorization] vote to 75 percent that they said nobody’s ever gonna get,” they almost dared the teachers to strike.

Other aldermen privately pointed to the mayor’s decision to cancel a previously negotiated 4 percent pay raise for teachers, his attempt to use cash bounties to convince individual schools to immediately implement a longer school day and Emanuel’s alleged cavalier use of the f-word in a City Hall meeting with Lewis.

In spite of that history, sources said Emanuel is prepared to meet privately with Lewis to close the deal if he believes such a one-on-one meeting would be helpful.

But, a mayoral confidante said, “If they can show up late and leave for half the day, there’s no reason for him to be there. Only when it’s clear they’re committed to staying at the table until a deal is struck. If they’re not committed to staying there, his presence could make things worse, not better.”

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