A teachers strike that would have cancelled classes for 300,000 students was narrowly averted Monday night, with just minutes to go before a Chicago Teachers Union deadline.
Such a walkout — which would have been the second in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s tenure — is on hold for now.
Shortly before midnight, the Board of Education reached a tentative agreement with union leadership and its 40-strong Big Bargaining Team in talks that began nearly two years ago, but the teachers still need the approval of about 800 elected delegates to consider the deal done for good.
“Thank you, Jesus,” CPS’ Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson was overheard saying as she exited the conference room where cheers had erupted moments before.
Classes resumed as usual Tuesday morning, and parents and teachers arriving at their schools expressed relief.
“We’re very pleased,” Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said as she announced the deal mere minutes before the midnight deadline. She was flanked by union officers — and a smiling CPS’ Jackson.
“It’s not a perfect agreement as anyone will tell you,” she said, adding that the union still had some issues around case management and a lack of guarantees on social workers in schools.
Lewis had no plans yet at the late hour for convening the House of Delegates, who get the next crack at the agreement that eventually needs ratifying by the full membership to formally become a contract.
It’s not yet clear how the Board of Education will pay for the new deal, or how much of the tax-increment financing money the union has sought as a solution for the cash-strapped district could be tapped.
According to the four-year agreement published early Tuesday morning, teachers will keep in years two, three and four the raises they get for added experience and education known as steps and lanes, raises the Board had suspended during negotiations. Cost of living raises of 2 percent and then 2.5 percent also are forthcoming in the third and fourth years of the deal, Lewis said. Teachers are currently in year two of the agreement that would replace the contract that expired in June 2015.
“The 7% pension pickup remains intact,” the union tweeted out — but Lewis clarified that only existing teachers would keep that much-discussed benefit that CPS decades ago had agreed to pay for them. New hires will assume that cost themselves, she said.
The Board also committed in writing to sending more help to crowded kindergarten to second-grade classrooms during the second semester, and has earmarked $7 million each year of the deal to staff those same grades. And it agreed to find a solution in tandem with the CTU to somehow free counselors and special ed teachers from case management duties starting in the 2017-18 school year.
Earlier district proposals to reopen the contract if CPS couldn’t entice 1,500 teachers and several hundred more aides to retire early have been eliminated, and CPS also agreed to form an advisory committee of two CTU members, two Board members and CPS’ finance chief to discuss budget issues.
A cap on the city’s total number of charter schools over the life of the deal has remained.
The eight-page written offer came after 8 p.m., Lewis told reporters during a 10 p.m. update.
That’s when she characterized the economic portion as “significantly better” than the previous offer, but cautioned the union had to go through it “line by line” before deciding whether to accept or reject it.
Parents are “going to have to be up a little later, I am so sorry. I wish i could tell you that you could go to bed now,” she said at a brief press conference. “I would say this, prepare for the worst and pray for the best.”
The mayor did not attend negotiations but spent the evening at City Hall with CPS CEO Forrest Claypool and the school board’s president and vice president, according to a spokeswoman.
“Teachers’ hard work will be respected in this contract and appropriately rewarded,” he said at a late-night press conference, reading from a prepared statement.
“Chicago Public Schools’ finances will be stronger and on firmer ground because of this agreement. Parents and taxpayers will be relieved and more importantly, reassured that we all came together to work together for a common purpose, and students across Chicago will be in school this morning and path to a brighter future.”
Emanuel took no questions at the 12:30 a.m. press conference, which took place as the Cubs were tied 5-5 with the San Francisco Giants in the National League playoffs, quipping “It’s late, and it’s in the ninth inning.”
Speaking for CPS before the deal was done, Jackson — and Claypool — said the weekend-long negotiations had developed “high levels of trust at the table” between CPS and the union bargaining team.
“We’ll continue to work up until the deadline so that we can have our children in school,” she said.
The board and the union had been at it since about noon, and had met every day since Wednesday. A mayoral spokeswoman said Claypool, along with Emanuel and school board officials spent Monday night meeting at City Hall.
Union leaders had warned their 28,000 members to be ready to walk picket lines at 6 a.m. Tuesday for the second time in four years unless they were told otherwise.
Before reaching the 11th-hour settlement, they had also planned to rally downtown during Emanuel’s scheduled 11 a.m. budget address.
And on Monday, teachers picked up “ON STRIKE” signs from a pop-up strike headquarters in the West Loop.
Averting the planned walkout needed a tentative agreement on Monday between the board and union negotiators. And that meant selling not only union leadership on the deal, but also the Big Bargaining Team, the same body of 40 members that promptly and unanimously nixed a formal contract proposal CPS presented last winter.
This time, the Big Bargaining Team has been more closely looped into talks in real time than in January, when an offer Lewis considered “serious” was then passed on to them. They also met Saturday to discuss developments.
Jackson, a former principal, and veteran CPS educator Denise Little recently joined the bargaining team that has steadily included the city’s labor attorney James Franczek, and mayoral aide Michael Rendina, who was seen throughout the evening pacing as he talked on his phone.
The city initially offered the teachers a raise by the end of the four-year contract, but also walked back a 7 percent pension benefit CPS decades ago had agreed to pay for them, too. CTU members were also asked to pay more toward their healthcare. A number of quality-of-life improvements also were included, such as autonomy over grading, paperwork reductions and more “community schools” with wraparound services for children and families.
But teachers also wanted guarantees of no more cuts to schools or to their take-home pay, and some $500 more funding per student for their schools, too. They also argued that extra pay based on experience shouldn’t take the place of other raises.
Sources also said Emanuel was prepared to “substantially” increase his offer of tax-increment-financing funds to the Chicago Public Schools beyond the $32 million surplus already built into the budget.