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Back to school soon? Striking Chicago teachers hope for accord

September 13, 2012|By Michael Muskal

Negotiators returned to the bargaining table, hoping that Thursday, the fourth day of the teachers strike in Chicago, will be the last.

Talks ended just before midnight with both sides agreeing that significant progress had been made in the strike at the nation’s third-largest school district. Thousands of unionized teachers have shut down the district, leaving parents scrambling to find care for the 350,000 students who are shut out of classes.

“We feel like we’re in a pretty good place, we’ve made a lot of progress today,” teachers union president Karen Lewis told reporters.  “We spent a lot of time on evaluation. We still have a lot of work to do but it seems like we’re definitely coming much closer together than we were certainly this morning.”

PHOTOS: Chicago teachers strike

Asked when parents could expect the strike to end, Lewis replied: “Let’s hope for Friday.”

But students may not be able to return until next week, Lewis said on Thursday as she entered the room for the next round of talks.

Chicago school board president David Vitale also agreed that significant progress had been.

“We had really good discussions and proposals on the most difficult issues that we face,” Vitale told reporters on Wednesday. “We’re hopeful we can actually come together around this.... Unfortunately they’re not going to be back to school tomorrow, and we’ll hope for Friday.”

For several days, it seemed like positions had hardened, particularly over city demands for a new teacher evaluation process that would include the use of standardized test scores – a red flag for the union in Chicago and for unionized teachers around the country. Unions see the evaluation as a threat to their role in negotiating work rules while parents see the changes as needed to make teachers more responsive to their demands. Also at issue in Chicago has been the procedures to recall laid-off teachers.

The city offered a revised contract proposal on Tuesday and that package was the basis of talks on Wednesday and Thursday.

Under the proposal, teacher raises would be structured differently, as requested by the union; evaluations of tenured teachers during the first year could not result in dismissal; later evaluations could be appealed; and health insurance rates would hold steady if the union agreed to take part in a wellness program, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune.

The new proposal also removes the district's ability to rescind raises because of a budget crisis. The board stripped teachers of a 4% raise last year, sparking union distrust of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the former chief of staff to President Obama.

Both sides have reportedly agreed to a 16% salary hike over four years, costing an estimated $320 million. It is unclear how the district will pay for the increase, but cost-cutting or shutting some schools will likely be considered.

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