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Biggest obstacle to a new teachers’ contract is resolved

Updated: August 26, 2012 6:24AM

The biggest obstacle to a new Chicago teachers’ contract was resolved so amicably and so sensibly Tuesday that the biggest wonder was what took everyone so long.

While many hours of tough bargaining and more compromises remain to be navigated to avoid a school strike this year, the tentative agreement on the thorny issue of a longer school day means that negotiators can start to see a path to the finish line.

It’s still awfully early in the process for both sides to be congratulating themselves the way they were Tuesday, but I think you should take this development as a very positive sign if you’re someone who considers it a priority to keep Chicago public school children in the classroom.

I’d say the chances of Chicago teachers going out on strike this fall have been reduced considerably — even though Teachers Union President Karen Lewis made a point of reminding everyone of the overwhelming strike authorization vote that continues to back her play at the bargaining table.

The agreement is even better if you place a high priority on the longer school day championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Some do. Some don’t. But overall, I think most people are ready to give it a try.

Tuesday’s deal removes any lingering doubts as to whether the mayor’s plan to keep kids in school longer could fall victim to contract negotiations. The longer day — billed the “full school day” by CPS officials — is going to happen.

That’s an obvious victory for the mayor who has made the longer school day his top education reform priority.

But the deal is an equally big win for the teachers who always said their priority was to make the longer day a “better day” for their students — and to get paid more if they were going to be forced to work longer.

In the deal that was struck, the teachers won’t work an appreciably longer day — not a minute longer for elementary teachers and 14 minutes more for high school teachers.

Kids are kept in school longer by changes in the teachers’ schedules and by hiring back 477 displaced tenured teachers to provide additional instruction in art, music, physical education or world languages.

That met three of the teachers union’s oft-stated goals: fair compensation, improved staffing and enhanced recall provisions.

The compromise comes with a price tag of $40-$50 million, which is a fraction of what it could have cost the district to compensate all its teachers for an increased workload.

Remember that an arbitrator ruled just last week that the teachers deserved a 12 percent pay hike for working the longer day as then outlined by CPS, which would have cost about $240 million. Even if you cut the extra pay in half, that still would have created a $120 million tab.

That doesn’t answer the question of where cash-strapped CPS will find even the $40-50 million, but the negotiating process is ongoing, and school officials are still seeking other concessions that could provide savings.

The mayor sidestepped the question at a news conference, deflecting with his patented answer of: “We can’t afford not to do it.”

I think he can get away with that until the final agreement is reached, and somebody gives us a total price tag.

The teachers union, of course, believes there’s still some wiggle room in the CPS budget, and they’re still going to be looking for a raise along with greater job security.

In recent days, charter school operators have started sounding the alarm that they fear they will be the ones who will bear the brunt of any CPS budget-cutting necessary to settle the teachers’ contract.

The Chicago Teachers Union wouldn’t mind in the least if that were the case, but CPS officials on Tuesday reiterated their commitment to fund the charter schools as previously proposed.

While both sides ended up rejecting his fact-finding report, arbitrator Edwin Benn had identified the longer school day standoff as the main issue contributing to what he characterized as the “toxic” relationship between CPS and the teachers’ union.

While this deal will not repair that relationship, removing the source of the poison should begin to promote some healing.

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