News Column

Chicago Teachers Strike Heads Into 2nd Day

Sept. 11, 2012

Ellen Jean Hirst, Joel Hood, Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah and Hal Dardick

As day two of the Chicago teachers strike dawned Tuesday, there was a stirring of impatience as picketers marched and chanted in the Loop.

"This could have been solved on day negative 5," complained Christopher Barker, a math teacher at George Manierre Elementary School.

But that doesn't mean Barker is ready to give in. "I don't have fears," Barker said. "I'm optimistic. . .I'll be here as long as I need to."

Joining him in front of Chicago Public Schools headquarters was Susan Hickey, a social worker for the district who worried about students most in need of help.

"These children need these services," Hickey said. "They need more quality services."

Her consolation was that there may be "a bit of a history lesson" here. "We're telling them, 'This is how you stand for your rights.' "

More than 350,000 children remain locked out of the classroom as striking teachers and the school board return to the bargaining table today.

School Board President David Vitale left talks a little after 6:30 p.m. Monday saying the two sides were going over technical issues and had failed to take up key points of contention, including teacher evaluations and a recall policy.

Still, as he has several times before, Vitale expressed optimism a deal could be reached soon.

"We believe we should resolve this tomorrow. We are close enough to get this resolved," he said. "This is hard work."

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis left talks about three hours later, and when told of Vitale's suggestion that a deal could be reached Tuesday responded, "Wow."

"That really is up to them," she said.

Asked why teacher evaluations and recalls were not discussed, Lewis said the district did not offer anything new to move those matters along.

"They didn't bring those up," so other issues, like the details of the longer school days, were discussed, she said.

Talks were scheduled to resume around 9:30 a.m. today at the downtown law offices of Dowd, Black and Bennett.

As the strike began Monday, thousands of teachers in red T-shirts flooded the Loop to show solidarity for the strike, filling streets and stopping traffic.

"There is a lot of anger," said Vicki Turbov, an English teacher at North-Grand High School in Humboldt Park who has two children attending district high schools. "This is about big stakes, the future of education in our country. This is not about a 2 percent increase."

Attendance was light at the 144 schools opened by the district as part of a strike contingency plan, and some parents expressed uneasiness about crossing picket lines.

"I understand both sides; they have their right to strike," Marcia Garcia said as she dropped her daughter off at a school in Little Village. "But it's a shame my daughter can't learn."

Mayor Rahm Emanuel met with students at Maranatha Assembly of God on the Southwest Side, one of 59 faith-based organizations serving as "safe havens" for displaced schoolchildren. Emanuel sought to reassure parents that CPS is working quickly to resolve the situation and return kids to the classroom.

He again characterized the strike as "one of choice" by teachers and said the walkout could have been avoided.

"It's the wrong choice for our children," Emanuel said.

Many parents didn't know what to expect when they dropped off their children Monday at schools opened as part of the district's strike contingency plan. Like other parents, Vicente Perez had to cross raucous picket lines, with teachers chanting and banging drums, when he dropped his two boys off at Ray Elementary School in Hyde Park.

That scared off his youngest son, Kahil, 9. "I don't want to go there," the boy said, leading Perez to call his wife on his cellphone and change plans -- they'd either take the kids to a church or just keep them at home.

At Walt Disney Magnet School on the North Side, John Harvey said he was nervous dropping off his 7-year-old, Aiden, amid all the commotion.

"I don't know how they feel about us bringing our children," Harvey said. "We're a little at odds now. I didn't know if we were hurting the situation or not. I didn't know what they were going to do. So I came with my shield up."

While some students accompanied their parents to work, others found ways to bide their time at home under the watch of grandparents or extended family. Parents, many of whom scrambled late Sunday to figure out a child care solution after the strike was called, wished only for a quick resolution.

"I hope it ends tomorrow," said Jacqueline Smith, who has five children in the city's public schools. "If not tomorrow, within the next week. The city needs to understand the teachers are not playing."

Teachers were up early picketing at their schools before many headed downtown for a rally outside CPS' Loop headquarters. Some teachers brought their children, who stood on shoulders and joined in the chants. Nearly everyone was wearing a red T-shirt. Police, some on horseback, lined the sidewalks and blocked intersections.

Much of the teachers' anger was directed at the mayor as they chanted, "Rahm hear our voice, the strike is not our choice." One sign, perhaps mocking that Emanuel's children attend a private school, read, "Hey Rahm, How many children are in your child's classroom?"

CPS has improved its initial offer to teachers of a 2 percent base wage increase in each of the four years of the contract. The offer submitted to the union Sunday night offers teachers a series of base salary increases over four years, beginning with 3 percent in the first year and 2 percent in each of the next three years.

The average teacher in CPS has 13.7 years of experience and is paid about $71,200, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.

The district's proposal also retains salary bumps for furthering education and for teacher experience, although the "step" increases for experience would be modified. CPS, which released an outline of its offer Sunday night, declined to give further details Monday.

The school board has made other concessions, including addressing a recall policy for teachers who had been laid off because of school closings, consolidations and turnarounds. The union has long sought such a policy, although officials said Sunday the district's plan does not go far enough. The union has not disclosed details of its contract proposals.

Tribune reporters Ellen Jean Hirst, Jodi S. Cohen, Kristen Mack, Bridget Doyle and Naomi Nix contributed.

Source: (c)2012 the Chicago Tribune Distributed by MCT Information Services

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