Members of the Chicago Teachers Union distributed strike signs as the deadline approached.
By MONICA DAVEY; Published: September 9, 2012
CHICAGO — Union leaders for this city’s public schoolteachers said that they would strike on Monday morning after negotiations ended late Sunday with no contract agreement between the union and the nation’s third largest school system, which have been locked for months in a dispute over wages, job security and teacher evaluations.
Coming as the school year had barely begun for many, the impasse and looming strike were expected to affect hundreds of thousands of families here, some of whom had spent the weekend scrambling to rearrange work schedules, find alternative programs and hire baby sitters if school was out for some time.
Chicago Public Schools officials, visibly frustrated after talks broke off late Sunday night, expressed concern for the estimated 350,000 students the strike could affect.
“We do not want a strike,” David J. Vitale, president of the Chicago Board of Education, said late Sunday as he left the negotiations, which he described as extraordinarily difficult and “perhaps the most unbelievable process that I’ve ever been through.”
Union leaders said they had hoped not to walk away from their jobs, but they said they were left with little choice.
“This is a difficult decision and one we hoped we could have avoided,” said Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union.
The political stakes now may be highest for Rahm Emanuel, the Democratic mayor in a city with deep union roots. He took office last year holding up the improvement of public schools as one of his top priorities, but now faces arduous political terrain certain to accompany Chicago’s first public schools strike in 25 years.
Late Sunday, Mr. Emanuel told reporters that school district officials had presented a strong offer to the union, including what some officials described as what would amount to a 16 percent raise for many teachers over four years — and that only two minor issues remained. “This is totally unnecessary, it’s avoidable and our kids do not deserve this,” Mr. Emanuel said, describing the decision as “a strike of choice.”
For days, even as talks went on, Chicago had been bracing for the possibility of a teachers strike — the first since a 19-day stoppage in 1987. In recent days, hundreds of people have called the city’s 311 system and the Chicago Public Schools central offices with questions about whether a strike was coming, and what it would mean. A strike was not expected to affect the 45,000 students in the city’s charter schools, officials said.
The school system, which employs about 25,000 teachers, announced contingency plans in the event of a strike, including a program to open 144 of its 675 schools with half-days of activities supervised by people other than unionized teachers. Officials said that program would also include meals — no small concern since 84 percent of the city’s public school students qualify for the free and reduced meals program.
Ms. Lewis deemed the contingency proposal, which was expected to be able to accommodate at least 150,000 students, “a mess,” and suggested that school officials were expecting families to “put their children with random folks.” For its part, the union on Saturday opened a strike headquarters where members could begin collecting picket signs and other materials to prepare for a walkout.
Negotiations have taken place behind closed doors since November, concerning wages and benefits, whether laid-off teachers should be considered for new openings, extra pay for those with more experience and higher degrees, and evaluations. District officials said the teachers’ average pay is $76,000 a year.
School officials, who say the system faces a $665 million deficit this year and a bigger one next year, have worked to cut costs even as Mr. Emanuel has pressed for what he considers much-needed “comprehensive reform,” including a longer school day.
Teachers have said they are being neglected on issues like promised raises, class sizes and support staff in the schools. By June, about 90 percent of teachers voted in favor of authorizing a strike if a new agreement could not be reached during the summer.
While negotiators handled the private talks, Chicagoans watched what appeared to be a contentious, sometimes personal fight between two blunt and resolute personalities: Mr. Emanuel and Ms. Lewis, who has described the mayor in recent days as a “bully” and a “liar,” and in a recent interview added, “I think the whole idea of an imperial mayoralty where you wave a magic wand or cuss someone out and things happen is untenable.”
Some parents said they were ultimately hopeful about the prospect of improvement in their children’s schools and eager for the changes advocated by Mr. Emanuel, whose own children attend private school. But others said that they thought teachers had been pushed hard, and that a standoff seemed inevitable.
“He has a vision for what he wants,” Jacob Lesniewski, a parent, said of Mr. Emanuel, “and he’s not going to let anything get in his way.”
For the moment, though, parents seemed most worried about something else entirely: how to juggle their way through Monday with no school.