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Mayor Emanuel to ‘ratchet up’ his role in preventing teachers strike

Mayor Rahm Emanuel pictured Thursday an unrelated event is preparing ‘ratchet up’ teacher negotiations bid get schools start time. |

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, pictured Thursday at an unrelated event, is preparing to ‘ratchet up’ teacher negotiations in a bid to get schools to start on time. | Brian Jackson~Sun Times

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Updated: September 25, 2012 10:49AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is preparing to “ratchet up” negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union to seal a deal needed to guarantee an on-time Sept. 4 opening of Chicago Public Schools and preserve his signature plan for a longer school day and year, City Hall sources said Thursday.

“He owns this anyway, and he’s gonna need to ratchet it up to close it,” said a mayoral confidant, who asked to remain anonymous.

Emanuel is already visiting several schools a day to drive home the point that 140,000 kids have already started school and cannot be left in the lurch by a teachers strike.

Early next week, sources said the mayor plans to step it up a notch by having a “second level of negotiations with more senior people” away from the same cast of characters currently at the bargaining table.

The second tier of negotiations is likely to include Beth Swanson, Emanuel’s point person on education, and “someone from Washington, D.C., who is a more moderate, outside senior level” expert capable of “driving this home,” sources said.

“People who’ve been in those meetings for weeks have war wounds. It’s hard to break through that,” the Emanuel confidant said.

Community groups and Emanuel’s education “surrogates” are also expected to turn up the heat by orchestrating a series of news conferences, protest marches and rallies warning both sides not to “do this to our kids.”

And, if and when the talks appear to be nearing the goal line, sources said Emanuel is prepared to do what his predecessor would not: summon the two sides into the mayor’s office to personally broker the final chapter of bargaining.

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley never got personally involved in labor negotiations, unlike his father.

Instead, Daley delegated the responsibility to negotiators, remained at arm’s length and inevitably ended up agreeing to contracts taxpayers could not afford to maintain labor peace.

Daley was timid and notoriously risk-averse when it came to labor negotiations.

Emanuel has no such compunction. He brokered many a difficult deal — including the auto industry bailout — during his days as White House chief-of-staff under President Barack Obama.

He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty — but that should not be confused with weakness.

“If we come to the end, and it’s a choice between a ridiculous settlement and a strike, we would take a strike,” the mayoral confidant said.

“People went into negotiations with Daley knowing he was allergic to strikes. He wound up giving a ton in the end. This mayor can’t cave. It’s what he ran on. The kids will have a longer day, and he’s not gonna bankrupt the system to get it. The only way to do that is to have a more sane contract. He sees this deal as fundamental to that.”

Asked Thursday whether he was prepared to personally intervene in the teacher talks, Emanuel kept the spotlight on his negotiating team.

“The parties [who] need to work on this are at the table. ... And I expect the parties to stay at the table and get this done on behalf of the children of Chicago and on behalf of the taxpayers. ... That’s their responsibility. That’s how we’re all held accountable. And I expect them to do it, since the parties are there,” he said.

Emanuel would probably be inclined to jump into the talks sooner if he had a rapport with CTU President Karen Lewis.

But, their relationship is non-existent. Lewis even went so far as to accuse the mayor of using the f-word during one of their earliest private meetings.

“He and Karen have not had productive meetings in his office,” a mayoral confidant said. “You hold that as a final card.”

Last month, the two sides appeared to have taken a giant step toward averting Chicago’s first teachers strike in 25 years.

It called for hiring 477 teachers to staff the longer school day — at a cost of up to $50 million — so elementary school teachers don’t have to work a minute longer, and rearranging the high school day so teachers there have to work only 14 extra minutes.

Since then, progress appears to have slowed to a crawl. The union complained this week that the teacher hiring deal is not being honored and that the longer school day in schools that started earlier this month has been a flop.

On Thursday, City Hall sources identified teacher hire-backs and pay raises that reward teachers for education and seniority as the two biggest roadblocks standing in the way of an agreement.

The so-called “step-and-lane” increases that Emanuel wants to eliminate are likely to be preserved in some form but could be offered every other year, sources said. They also might be “different for new teachers,” the sources said.

Emanuel has cleared his calendar for Labor Day weekend to be available to broker eleventh-hour teacher talks.

He’s even prepared to cancel his trip to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. — and a coveted speech to delegates — if that’s what it takes to nail down a deal.

The mayor would also skip the convention in the event of a strike. He’s not about to leave town while working parents are scrambling to make alternative plans for their kids.

That’s even though his handpicked school board has authorized $25 million in spending to keep kids occupied, supervised and fed at libraries, Park District fieldhouses, charter schools and churches during a walkout.

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