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Inching closer to a strike? Teachers and CPS both gearing up

CTU president Karen Lewis news conference outside Chicago Public Schools headquarters 125 S. Clark St. Wednesday August 22 2012. |

CTU president Karen Lewis at news conference outside Chicago Public Schools headquarters, 125 S. Clark St., Wednesday, August 22, 2012. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 24, 2012 7:55AM

Angry union delegates voted Wednesday to give Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis the sole authority to take the next step toward a strike.

Only hours earlier, the Chicago School Board agreed to spend up to $25 million on a contingency plan in the event teachers walk out.

It all signalled concern on both sides that Chicago could see its first teachers strike in 25 years.

Members of the union’s House of Delegates poured out of a meeting at Lane Technical High School Wednesday evening, having authorized Lewis to issue a 10-day-notice of an intent to strike at her discretion.

“Although we have inched one step closer to fulfilling the legal requirements before we can strike, we have made no decision to do so at this time,” Lewis said later in a news release.

“Union leaders will go back to their schools to share the Board’s contract proposals with members and to discuss next steps. But we want our members prepared.”

Hours earlier, school board members signed off on a proposal to spend up to $25 million to shelter and feed children of the nation’s third-largest school district in the event of a strike. Under it, vendors could be hired to provide “non-instructional’’ services to kids left adrift by a teacher walkout.

“We don’t expect and hope we will not have a strike,’’ said School Board President David Vitale. But “ultimately, we have the responsibility to take care of our kids.’’

The plan would only kick into gear once the system receives the legally required 10-day notice of an intent to strike.

To preserve the right to strike by Sept. 4 — the opening day of classes for most kids — such a notice would have to be issued by this Saturday. Also, the House of Delegates must set a strike date, something they could do at their next meeting, on Aug. 30.

Before Wednesday’s board meeting, Lewis was strident. As about 50 teachers picketed in the background, she charged that a 2 percent raise was “unacceptable,’’ especially without any additional increases for experience and extra schooling many teachers across the nation receive.

An 11th-hour interim longer-day deal that allowed year-round schools to open this month has been implemented so “haphazardly’’ and “ridiculously’’ that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s promised longer school day is not a better school day, Lewis said.

Delegates also complained about the longer-day rollout during Wednesday night’s meeting, Lewis said.

However CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said she was “surprised” at the complaints because just last week union officials had “complimented us repeatedly for our implementation of the interim agreement” to launch the longer day.

During Wednesday’s board meeting, Lewis was less vitriolic, telling board members “we’d like to get a contract settled. We know there will be one. It’s just a question of when. We are hoping for movement in the next few days.’’

Responded Vitale: “We’d like to get this solved and we’ll work with you.’’

Board members Wednesday approved a $5.7 billion budget that drains the system’s rainy-day fund to help plug a $665 million deficit and does not plan to bring the reserves to normal levels for two years. Two rating agencies have downgraded the system’s credit rating in response.

Board member Henry Bienen said he supported the budget but considered the reserve drain “a one-time fix.” Said Bienen: “It’s postponing a day of reckoning.’’

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