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Lightfoot still confident teachers strike can be avoided

‘If I need to get personally involved, I’m happy to do that,’ the mayor told reporters Tuesday.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot at the new Englewood STEM High School on Tuesday.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, at the new Englewood STEM High School on Tuesday, said there is no reason a deal with the Chicago Teachers Union can’t be reached soon.
Nader Issa/Sun-Times

Denied the agreement she had hoped to reach by the first day of school, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Tuesday she remains confident of avoiding a second strike in seven years by a Chicago Teachers Union that was among Toni Preckwinkle’s biggest supporters.

“Whatever it takes, we are prepared to do it . . . We stand ready to get it done. If I need to get personally involved, I’m happy to do that,” the mayor said.

Lightfoot had hoped to nail down a tentative agreement with the CTU in time for opening day to reassure skittish parents, bolster student attendance and reverse years of enrollment declines at Chicago Public Schools.

Last week, she sweetened the city’s offer — from a 14% pay raise over five years to 16% — only to have the union say it was still not enough.

In rejecting the revised $351 million offer and an earlier fact-finder’s report that essentially sided with the city, the union started the 30-day clock for a potential strike.

On Tuesday, Lightfoot joined CPS CEO Janice Jackson at a celebratory back-to -school rally at the new $85 million Englewood STEM High School, 6835 S. Normal.

She touted the “very substantial raise” the city has offered teachers and talked about the additional resources built into the CPS budget for individual schools and support personnel.

“We’re making progress, despite the atmosphere outside of the bargaining table. There’s no reason why we can’t get a deal done — and get it done quickly,” the mayor said.

“I’ve seen teachers all across the city who say, `Hey, mayor. What do you say?’ I said, `Let’s get to the table and get the deal done’ . . . We’ve put in our budget positions for support personnel. So all of the main elements are there. We just need to ink the deal.”

Seven years ago, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s bullying missteps instigated Chicago’s first teachers strike in 25 years.

Emanuel famously used profanity in an early confrontation with then-Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, infuriated her members by canceling a previously-negotiated 4% pay raise for teachers, then added insult to injury by persuading the Illinois General Assembly to raise the strike-vote threshold to 75%.

Chicago teachers were so incensed, they blew past that benchmark easily, with 90% voting to strike. They remained on the picket lines for seven days and got the better of the mayor when the strike was finally settled.

Emanuel has told associates that if he had the chance to undo even one of his decisions as mayor, he would never have canceled the teacher pay raise. The move was seen as sheer arrogance. So was Emanuel’s pre-strike decision to force immediate implementation of the longer school day.

Apparently determined to avoid her predecessor’s mistakes, Lightfoot has promised not to, as she put it, “lead with my middle finger” in dealing with the CTU despite the union’s support for Preckwinkle.

But CTU President Jesse Sharkey has argued the independent fact-finder who sided with Lightfoot ignored the union’s “key concerns” about “conditions in our schools and classrooms.”

“Though the wage and benefit proposals will be said to be generous by the mayor and CPS’ team, they come in the context of nearly a decade of austerity and cuts for Chicago’s teachers and other school staff,” Sharkey said.

“We’ve endured three freezes, multiple furloughs, layoffs and other cuts.”

Sharkey and other union officials held an early-morning news conference Tuesday outside Juarez High School, 1450 W. Cermak, urging Lightfoot to reach a contract deal and complaining about budget and staff cuts in the CPS budget passed last week.

Although CPS is on more solid financial footing thanks to the windfall of state funding secured by Emanuel, Lightfoot has refused to build into the contract the union’s demands for librarians and nurses at every school, more special education and bilingual support, smaller classes and a counselor for every 250 students.

She has vowed to accede to some of those demands over time, but only outside the CTU contract.

“Obviously, there’s a finite amount of money. But, what we’ve tried to do . . . is to bring equity to the schools that need it,” Lightfoot said Tuesday.

“The rhetoric is one thing. But I think the proof is in the pudding. We’re putting our money where our mouth is. And we are doing everything we can to make every school as successful as possible.”