By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah and Kristen Mack, Chicago Tribune
Removing a major hurdle in the contentious contract talks with the teachers union, Chicago Public Schools has agreed to hire nearly 500 teachers so students can put in a longer school day without extending the workday for most teachers.
Both sides claimed victory, as Mayor Rahm Emanuel was able to keep his plan for a longer day intact and the union was able to add teachers while holding the line on how long they work.
But the two sides warned that several sticking points have yet to be resolved in the contract dispute, and the union said Tuesday's agreement does not eliminate the threat of a strike.
"It is too bad this solution, which was actually presented months ago, was rejected out of hand" at that time, said Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. "It has taken a march of nearly 10,000 educators, a strike authorization vote and a fact-finder's report to get CPS to move on this issue."
Emanuel called the agreement "a breakthrough" but said "there are a lot of other issues to still be resolved."
The longer day is no longer one of those issues, he said during a news conference at Sexton Elementary School on the South Side, which added 90 minutes to its day in the past school year.
"Will there be a longer school day? Answer, yes. Will school start on time? Yes."
Under the agreement, CPS will hire 477 teachers in noncore subjects such as music, art, foreign language and physical education. That will allow elementary school teachers to continue to work seven-hour days, which include teacher prep time and lunch. At the high school level, teachers will put in an additional 14 minutes.
The current school day runs five hours and 45 minutes for most elementary schools and seven hours for most high schools. That will be extended to seven hours for elementary schools and 71/2 hours for high schools.
The additional staff to be hired will come from a pool of teachers laid off over the past three years, a plan that addresses the union's desire to find work for displaced educators.
The agreement likely will lead to more modest salary demands from the union. An arbitrator's report last week chastised the district for not offering teachers sufficient compensation for the longer day.
The fact-finder recommended 15 to 20 percent salary increases for teachers next school year, which would have cost the cash-strapped district $330 million. In contrast, hiring 477 teachers will cost the district about $50 million, school board President David Vitale said.
Emanuel could not say where that money will come from. Asked how the district will afford to hire the teachers, given a $665 million deficit and plans to empty its cash reserves, the mayor said, "We can't afford not to."
Tuesday's announcement allowed Emanuel to hold fast to his campaign pledge to keep children in school longer, the central part of his plan to improve Chicago's public school system.
In recent months the mayor has lost several rounds to the teachers. He tried to stop the union from taking a strike authorization vote in June, but teachers voted anyway, and nearly 90 percent of them backed a walkout. Then, last week, the arbitrator's report came out and was weighted largely in favor of teachers.
Tuesday's agreement was the latest sign of Emanuel's political pragmatism. In April he made a concession to opponents of the longer day by shaving 30 minutes off the original plan for a 71/2-hour school day for elementary students.
CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said the funding for additional teachers could come through savings realized in contract negotiations or further cuts in programs and staffing.
Union officials would not comment on whether they will lower their salary demands now that most teachers won't have to work longer. The union initially asked for nearly 30 percent over two years, while the district offered a 2 percent increase next year. In final proposals submitted to the arbitrator, the union asked for a 25 percent raise over two years and CPS proposed 2 percent increases annually for the next four years.
CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said the union floated the idea of adding more art and music teachers early in the talks, but the proposal didn't gain traction until last month's strike authorization vote. With the release of the arbitrator's report, talks about hiring from a pool of displaced teachers gained momentum over the past few days.
"They didn't show willingness to move on that until after the fact-finder's report became public," Sharkey said.
A third of CPS schools open Aug. 13, with the rest starting Sept. 4. The earliest the union could strike is Aug. 18. Talks between the two sides have been scheduled through Labor Day weekend.
Under the agreement, principals will decide how to use the extra teachers as well as what classes they want to add in their schools. Issues in the contract talks still in play include teacher salaries and how increases are given. The union is still pushing for raises based on experience and the pursuit of graduate degrees, while the district would like to replace them with a system based on merit pay.
Job security and recall policies for fired teachers also remain on the table, as does a new evaluation system and health care costs, and the length of the school year. Class sizes also remain an issue -- the union fears that the district could choose to raise class sizes and lay off teachers to save money.
"We don't want to see (the school board) paying for art and music by cutting teachers," Sharkey said. "There's still the question of class size guarantees. We don't want them to staff up at the expense of other class positions."
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