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Students at Frazier International Magnet School wait outside before the start of school on September 19, 2012 following the teachers strike that began on September 10.
Students at Frazier International Magnet School wait outside before the start of school on Sept. 19, 2012. It was their first day back at school after the Chicago Teachers Union reached a contract settlement with the Chicago Public Schools, ending a strike.
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EDITORIAL: The economic reality of a possible Chicago teachers’ strike

City Hall and the teachers’ union owe it to students and families to make sure a strike doesn’t happen.

Once again, Chicago is in waiting mode on a possible teachers’ strike.

The last strike was seven years ago, when the scenario was much different. Teachers, fed up with Mayor Rahm Emanuel for rescinding their scheduled raises and imposing a longer school day without offering more pay, walked out for the first time in 25 years.

They rallied behind Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who wasn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with Emanuel, and went on strike for seven days.

Thankfully, 2019 is not 2012.

Chicago has a new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, and the CTU has a new president, Jesse Sharkey. There’s no sniping back and forth. Yes, City Hall and the CTU remain far apart on finalizing a new contract, but the two sides have ramped up negotiations as the school year gets ready to start Sept. 3.

If negotiations reach an impasse, the union cannot legally strike until late September at the earliest. But it’s a good sign that Sharkey told WTTW-Channel 11 last week, “Don’t put the cart before the horse.”

City Hall and the CTU owe it to students and their families to push past any impasse and keep schools open. Ensuring a good education for hundreds of thousands of students must be the top priority at the negotiating table.

For the union, that means accepting economic reality: Teachers won’t get the raise, or the cuts in health care costs, that they want. The union’s proposal for a three-year contract with annual raises of 5%, with no increase in health care costs and a rollback of current costs, sounds great. Plenty of workers, union and non-union, would love a 15 percent increase in pay over three years.

But Chicago has a billion-dollar budget hole to fill and nothing much to fill it with. Lightfoot is scheduled to lay out the grim details to Chicagoans in a “State of the City” speech on Aug. 29. Meanwhile, the financial picture at CPS has improved, but the district is still in junk-bond status and is paying millions every year just for debt service.

No wonder the CPS proposal on salaries and benefits is more modest: a five-year contract with 2.5% raises for three years and 3% raises the final two years, with an overall 1.5% increase in employee health care costs.

An independent fact-finder sided largely with the city here, striking a sensible middle ground: a five-year contract with 3% raises for three years and 3.5% raises in the final two years, with a 1% increase in health care cost.

There may be room for tweaking, but the fact-finder’s proposal is a fiscally responsible place to start.

On the other side, the city has room to sweeten a potential deal by giving a bit on union demands that would improve conditions in schools and ultimately benefit students.

Under the contract’s collective bargaining rules, the city doesn’t have to negotiate on class sizes, staffing and similar issues. Teachers cannot legally call a strike over those issues either.

But teachers know, better than anyone except maybe parents and kids themselves, what would make their schools better. Smaller classes, more social workers and certified school nurses, more clinicians and counselors, money for classroom supplies — each of these would be a boon to schools in low-income neighborhoods that have been left to flounder for years.

Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson pledged recently to hire more social workers and nurses and have invested more money in neighborhood schools. They’re on the right track.

But it can’t hurt to listen closely to teachers here, and push the envelope — as much as money allows — if it improves schools.

Like we said, put the children first.

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