CHICAGO (AP) — Hundreds of delegates to the Chicago teachers union gathered Tuesday to debate a proposed contract, the first step before casting a critical vote that could end the city's first teachers strike in 25 years.
Two days after refusing to end the strike because they hadn't seen all the contract details, the 700-plus delegates met at a South Side union hall to go over the settlement offer point by point.
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said she wouldn't tell union delegates how to vote. But she said she would vote for the proposal if she were still teaching, calling it the best deal negotiators could get.
"I don't think it's a great deal," Lewis said. "I'm just more proud of our union. The contract is the contract. It's nothing that I take ownership over."
As they arrived for the meeting, many delegates were optimistic the strike would be called off. A few said they weren't sure.
Tanya Ellis an elementary school teacher, hoped for an end to the walkout.
"It's not the best contract. It's not the worst," Ellis said. "We need our kids back in school."
Journalists were not permitted inside the meeting, but reporters peering through windows could see delegates standing and cheering, raising hands and pumping fists. From the outside, it was impossible to know specifically what they were excited about.
Many teachers said they felt conflicted: They were eager to go back to work but determined to see their efforts through to the end.
"I'm desperately wanting to get back to my lab experiments with my kids," said Heath Davis, a seventh-grade science teacher who was picketing outside Goethe Elementary School on the city's West Side.
Davis was optimistic that Tuesday's vote could end the strike that has kept 350,000 students out of the classroom. But he said teachers still had concerns about the academic calendar, pensions and resources for special education, in addition to the more publicly discussed issues of tying teacher evaluations to student test scores and recalling laid-off teachers when schools close.
"We don't want to move too quickly," said Davis, a delegate who was consulting with other teachers at his school before deciding how to vote. "We want to make sure our questions are answered."
Tuesday's vote was not on the contract offer itself, but on whether to continue the strike. The contract must be submitted to a vote of the full union membership before it is formally ratified.
Some union delegates were taking straw polls of rank-and-file teachers to measure support for a settlement.
Craig Richmond, a counselor at Richard Yates Elementary School in northwest Chicago, voted to continue to the strike as a way to pressure the district on the closure of schools with poor performance or declining enrollment. The former music teacher has lost his job three times in such closures.
He described his action as a protest vote, but he recognized that continuing to strike could erode community support and do more harm than good.
"It's a huge gamble," he acknowledged. "The kids would lose out. It doesn't feel good to me to have that position."
Union leaders say trust has become a critical factor after months of strained relations with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the school board, and that Emanuel's effort to get a judge to order the teachers back to class could become an obstacle.
But teachers have begun feeling pressure to decide quickly on the tentative contract that labor and education experts — and even some union leaders — called a good deal for the union after a long stretch of setbacks nationally for organized labor.
"It's risky to extend the strike when everyone was expecting the strike to be over," said Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.
Irked by the union's two-day delay in voting on whether to send children back to school, Emanuel took the matter into court Monday. A judge has called a hearing for Wednesday to rule on the city's request for an injunction ordering the teachers back to work.
Both sides have only released summaries of the proposed agreement. But outside observers said the tentative contract appears to be a win for the union's 25,000 teachers.
While teachers in San Francisco haven't gotten an across-the-board raise in years, for example, Chicago teachers are in line for raises in each of the proposed deal's three years with provisions for a fourth. In Cleveland, teachers recently agreed to the same kind of evaluation system based in part on student performance that Chicago has offered.
"The district went past the halfway mark," said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. "They got a pretty good deal."
Some union members in Chicago praised the school district's move on what percentage of test scores will be factored into teacher evaluations, reducing it from 45 percent to the 30 percent set as the minimum by state law. The deal also includes an appeals process to contest evaluations. The new evaluations would be phased in over the length of the contract.
The tentative contract calls for a 3 percent raise in its first year and 2 percent for two years after that, along with increases for experienced teachers. While many teachers are upset it did not restore a 4 percent pay raise Emanuel rescinded earlier this year, the contract if adopted would keep Chicago teachers among the highest-paid in the country.
In Chicago, the starting salary is roughly $49,000, and average salary is around $76,000 a year.
The city also won some things from the union in the proposed settlement. Emanuel gets the longer school day he wanted, and principals will have say over who gets hired at their schools, something the union fought. The district will be required to give some preference to teachers who are displaced, and the school district will have to maintain a hiring list and make sure that at least half of hires are displaced teachers.
"We made a lot of progress," said Susanne McCannon, who teaches art at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School. "I'd like to be back in the classroom, but I want to be back in the classroom with the best situation possible."
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Associated Press writers Jason Keyser in Chicago, Steve LeBlanc in Boston, Terry Chea in San Francisco and Amanda Myers in Cincinnati contributed to this report.
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