Students break for the summer; strike vote OK’d

The final days of the 2011-2012 school year are here as kindergarten, 8th grade and high school graduates toss their graduation caps signaling the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new one.

The final days of the 2011-2012 school year are here as kindergarten, 8th grade and high school graduates toss their graduation caps signaling the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new one.

These new graduates are also part of a new group for Chicago Public Schools, the third largest school district in the nation. They’ve helped CPS record its highest graduation rate –– projected at slightly more than 60 percent –– over the last five years.

But, as they celebrate, the Chicago Teachers Union collected enough votes to authorize a strike, if necessary.

Teachers voted overwhelmingly to authorize the first strike in 25 years if their union and the city cannot reach a deal on a contract this summer — signaling just how badly the relationship between teachers and Chicago school officials has deteriorated, union officials said Monday.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis announced the result of last week’s balloting — nearly 90 percent of its 26,502 members voted to authorize a strike —and called it "an indictment of the state of the relationship between the management of CPS and its largest labor force members." State law requires 75 percent approval.

Teachers are upset that Mayor Rahm Emanuel canceled last year’s raise and that they’re being asked to work longer days without what they consider to be an adequate pay increase. Lewis said other key issues include class size and resources.

A strike wouldn’t be called until the beginning of the next school year, but union leaders could do so without another vote. They say holding the vote now instead of later gives the union added leverage at the bargaining table. It also allowed 1,500 retiring teachers to vote.

"Our members … were loud, serious and clear," Lewis said. "We want a contract that gives Chicago students the school they deserve. So we call on CPSs to take this process seriously and negotiate with us in good faith with an eye on the real prize, our children."

Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard issued a statement saying it was "a shame" the union took the vote before an independent fact-finder presents recommendations on several contract issues next month and that he’s "disappointed that the union leadership would rush their members to vote for a strike before having the complete information on the table."

Lewis said the fact-finder’s report will deal with only a handful of issues, and "we have an entire contract to negotiate."

District spokeswoman Becky Carroll has said that once the report comes out, both sides will have 15 days to accept or reject it, and the union will have 30 days to decide whether or not to strike. The last Chicago teachers strike was in 1987, and lasted 19 days.

Much of the teachers’ frustration has centered on Emanuel, who rescinded a 4 percent raise last year and then tried to go around the union in his push for longer school days by asking teachers at individual schools to waive the union contract to work more hours. The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board subsequently blocked Emanuel’s negotiations with schools.

He still was able to lengthen the school day for children to 7 hours, starting this fall, without the union’s approval.

Emanuel ignored reporters’ questions Monday about the strike authorization. Emanuel spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton said the public schools cannot afford a strike.

"At a time when our graduation rates and college enrollments are at record highs — two successes in which our teachers played an integral role — we cannot halt the momentum with a strike," she said. "Our teachers deserve a raise, but our kids don’t deserve a strike and taxpayers cannot afford to pay for 30 percent raises."

The district has proposed a five-year deal that guarantees teachers a 2 percent pay raise in the first year and lengthens by 10 percent the amount of time teachers must spend at school, from 7 hours to 7 hours and 40 minutes. The union wants a two-year deal that reduces class size and calls for teachers to receive a 24 percent pay raise in the first year and a 5 percent pay raise in the second year.

Chicago public school students have the shortest school day — 5 hours and 45 minutes — among the nation’s 50 largest districts, according to a 2007 report from the National Council on Teacher Quality — part of the reason Emanuel moved to lengthen it.

But the Chicago Teachers Union said that report did not track actual classroom time and insisted the amount of instruction time was on par with other districts.

Associated Press contributed to this story.

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