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CPS says agreement possible Friday, union less optimistic

Updated: October 15, 2012 9:49AM



The two sides trying to end the first Chicago teachers strike in 25 years emerged from marathon contract talks early Friday, with school officials holding out the possibility that a package might be ready for a union sign off in the afternoon.

“Anything is realistic. We’re really closing a lot of gaps,’’ said School Board President David Vitale as he emerged from negotiations around 12:45 a.m.

However, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis was less optimistic.

“I hope he knows something that I don’t know,’’ Lewis told reporters.

While Vitale thought classes could resume for kids on Monday, Lewis said, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I certainly hope so.’’

A positive sign, both sides indicated, was that some new approaches were floated at Thursday’s talks that required both parties to do some number-crunching before negotiations were scheduled to resumed at 9 a.m. Friday. On Thursday, talks lasted about 15 hours.

Vitale said they included the thorny issue of the recall of laid off teachers, requiring district staff to analyze the financial implications of the approach. Said Vitale: “we have a general idea of what we’d like to do if the numbers work.’’

Lewis walked into Thursday’s talks around 9:30 a.m, saying she was “praying, praying, praying’’ that an agreement will be signed and delivered in time for schools to open Monday for kids.

“I’m on my knees for that,’’ Lewis said.

The union’s House of Delegates, which must approve any deal, was scheduled to meet at 2 p.m. Friday.

At that time, said CTU spokeswoman Stephanie Gadlin, the group will be updated and offer input on talks that have dragged on for nine months. Delegates also could “develop a new course of action,’’ she said without elaborating.

The timing of the meeting means that if a deal is ready, delegates could vote on it at that time. However, if delegates believe any agreement still needs more work, they could send negotiators back to the table and meet again before Monday for another update and possible vote.

The House of Delegates also could consider letting kids return to class while negotiators talk — something Mayor Rahm Emanuel and aldermen have been pushing.

However, Lewis said Thursday her strong preference was to not return to work until a deal was sealed.

The union is organizing a huge rally at noon Saturday in Union Park. Depending on the state of talks, the rally could be a victory celebration or a show of force in the union’s push for what it calls a “fair contract.’’

Thousands of CTU members and other activists congregated Thursday in front of the Hyatt Regency on East Wacker, demanding the recall of Chicago School Board member Penny Pritzker, a Hyatt Hotels board member whose father co-founded the hotel chain.

Protesters contended Pritzker had a conflict sitting on the school board, because her hotel chain had benefitted from tax increment financing funds that diverted money from schools.

“That money is for our children. It’s for blighted communities. Does downtown look blighted?” teacher Tara Stamps of Jenner Academy asked the crowd. “We need the money that Penny took.’’

The Rev. Jesse Jackson made another appearance Thursday afternoon at talks, located in the Conrad Chicago on South Michigan.

After meeting with both sides he said he detected an “earnestness” that he had not observed before.

“I’m optimistic something will happen by Monday,” Jackson said.

Meanwhile, across the nation, educators and education advocates were watching the Chicago showdown over what Mayor Rahm Emanuel has identified as the two big stumbling blocks to an agreement — job security and teacher evaluations.

Those issues, said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, are “huge” and in contention nationwide.

Across the education reform community, said Walsh, “Chicago is all we’re talking about. That’s all anyone is talking about.’’

The last CPS pay offer on the table is 2 percent in each of four years, plus extra raises for teacher experience and credentials. In addition, CPS has agreed to withdraw a contract clause that lets the board rescind any raise it can’t afford, meaning any raises would be guaranteed. The board used that opt-out clause last year to cancel a 4 percent raise, infuriating teachers.

But teachers say money isn’t the issue as much as working conditions, teacher evaluations and recall rights for laid-off teachers. The latter two are critical given the district’s push to close schools and open charters — two moves that threaten CTU job security.

On the issue of job protection, CTU officials want the board to continue the interim deal — reached at the 11th hour to ensure Emanuel’s longer day would start on time — that requires principals to choose from a pool of qualified laid-off teachers if at least three of them apply for an opening.

However, since that agreement, Emanuel and a group of principals have insisted that principals can’t be held accountable for the results at their schools if they can’t pick the teachers they want.

Leading that charge is School Board member Mahalia Hines, a former CPS principal.

Also incredibly sticky is the issue of a new teacher evaluation system, which eventually puts more weight on student growth than the 30 percent required by a new state law.

“The system they are using to evaluate people is based on an extremely complicated, esoteric formula to measure student growth — so complicated I think everybody on the CPS team will admit they don’t understand it,” CTU attorney Robert Bloch said. “Experts developed it but not educators.”

Of special concern is that 70 percent of CPS teachers do not teach a tested subject, yet up to 20 percent of their evaluation would be based on schoolwide test results, Bloch said.

Another at least 10 percent would be based on student growth on district-written “performance’’ tasks being used for the first time this school year.

In addition, the complicated algorithms used to determine student growth — called “value-added” — are being debated nationwide.

“The problem is, how do you hold teachers accountable for improvement when so many things that are used to evaluate them are outside their control or very complicated?’’ Bloch said.

“The science behind the student growth aspects of testing is untested and uncertain, and you’re going to risk a teacher’s career based on some guy in a back room writing algorithms or students who are not tested in the subject you’re teaching?

“There’s a lot of unknowns. People’s careers should not be decided by factors people don’t really understand.”

Tim Daly of The New Teacher Project, a teacher advocacy and policy group, said the previous CPS rating system wasn’t working because it placed 93 percent of teachers in the top two categories and only three out of 1000 in “unsatisfactory,’’ or the bottom category, which gives teachers 90 days to improve or face dismissal.

The results were so skewed, Daly said, they did a poor job of identifying poor as well as outstanding teachers. Growth on student test scores combined with other measuring sticks should work better, he said.

The CPS plan would let teachers appeal “erroneous’’ ratings, and a joint committee would fine-tune the system after the first year, CPS officials say.

“It’s perfectly normal to be apprehensive, but it hasn’t been implanted yet,’’ Daly said. “They should at least give this a chance to work before saying it needs to be something else.’’



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