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Rahm Emanuel ‘not in the room,’ but ‘very well tuned in’

Mayor Rahm Emanuel marches Mexican Independence Parade 26th Street. Sunday September 9 2012 | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel marches in the Mexican Independence Parade on 26th Street. Sunday, September 9, 2012 | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 10, 2012 12:23AM



With parents on pins and needles and Chicago teachers poised to strike, Mayor Rahm Emanuel tried to go about his Sunday like any other — a parade, a street fair and then returning home to his kids.

But with a Chicago Teachers Union strike looming, it was a Sunday unlike any other, and Emanuel stayed in contact with his handpicked people inside the contract negotiations.

“He’s getting updates as frequently as its allowed,” spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton said. “He’s very well-tuned into what’s going on.

“He’s not in the room, but [top aide for education] Beth Swanson is and she’s his voice. It’s pretty clear that when she’s talking, she’s talking for him.”

During breaks in the talks, Swanson has been on the phone with Emanuel and passing the phone to School Board President David Vitale, Hamilton said.

Hamilton echoed Vitale’s Saturday night assessment that talks were “close” to a settlement. She said city officials are hopeful for a resolution — but prepared for whatever happens.

During the day on Sunday, Emanuel attended the Mexican Independence Day parade and a street fair at the Misericordia home on the North Side.

Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s floor leader and the former longtime chairman of the City Councils’ Education Committee, said the economic issues are not the hangup.

“They’re close on the economic parts — but there are other issues that are holding it up and preventing them from signing off on the economic package,” he said without elaborating.

But he did allow that he doesn’t think a short strike would be “hugely devastating.”

“We’ve been talking about it for weeks,” O’Connor said. “Everybody has been steeling themselves for it. That being the case, you just hope that if they go out they keep bargaining and working to get it done. ...

“If it’s a protracted strike, it may be something that has a lingering effect. If it’s not, people in Chicago have seen this coming. The idea that it’s here — nobody should be surprised. I don’t think it’s the end of the world or that it will have long lasting repercussions.

At stake for Emanuel is having parents of 350,000 kids scrambling at the last minute to make alternative plans if teachers walk out on Monday morning as threatened.

The city does have 144 “contingency” schools prepared to house kids from 8:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. during school days — but that’s far short of the full school day.

Parents could have to take days off of work — or have their kids in the street. A worst-case scenario for Emanuel would be something terrible happening to kids while away from school. The city is already suffering through a spike in homicides this year.

For Emanuel, there’s more at stake than just getting a deal done. It also depends how the deal gets done.

In an effort to preserve his signature plan for a longer school day, he has already agreed to hire 477 more teachers, allowing elementary school teachers to avoid working longer hours and only slightly increasing the time high school teachers will spend in classrooms.

But by doing that, he’s on the hook for up to $50 million to fund that agreement. The question still remains where is that money going to come up, and the School Board has already agreed to drain its reserves to put into the budget.

If Emanuel agrees to a more expensive deal, he’ll have no reserve funds to tap into next school years — and the looming threat of closing up to 100 more schools. That fear is one of the reasons teachers are intent on hammering out a recall policy for laid off teachers as part of the ongoing negotiations.

“If we wanted to commit money we didn’t have, we would have solved this,” O’Connor said. “But we’re trying to be fiscally responsible.”

“Public schools have become a real option for a lot of people. You gotta make sure whatever comes out of this, there’s the expectation that there will be labor peace for awhile.”

Emanuel campaigned on a promise of a longer school day — but also taking a strong stand with unions and not giving away the store. Not long after getting elected mayor, Emanuel helped get passed a school reform bill that made it harder for teachers to strike — a 75 percent ‘yes’ vote from teachers to authorize a strike— and mandated a longer school day.

Teachers, however, were able to come up with plenty of votes to authorize a strike.

“We had some success in Springfield when Rahm got elected, and they felt slighted by that,” O’Connor said. “This is an opportunity to flex a little of their muscle.”

O’Connor called strikes cyclical — and noted “new mayors get tested.”

“Even if he gets this done relatively soon, even if there’s a strike, people will be thrilled.”



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