City Hall insiders are whispering about the possibility of paying juts a fraction of the $634 million the city owes the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund before the end of June.

Teacher evaluation took center stage in negotiations between CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union on Tuesday, with Mayor Rahm Emanuel saying he believed teachers could not legally strike over some of the issues at hand but backed away from the idea of an injunction to try and end the strike.

Emanuel also sought to back up the district’s position on teacher recall rights, bringing together principals to speak at a press conference about the importance of maintaining hiring authority at their schools.

The two sides offered diverging accounts of the talks, with no clear sign of whether the strike will end anytime soon. 

“There has not been as much movement as we would hope,” CTU President Karen Lewis said at a press briefing early Tuesday evening. “There have been centimeters, and we are kilometers apart.”

Regarding evaluations, Lewis said union leaders believe the proposed evaluation system, which follows a state law mandating that teacher ratings be tied to student performance, would “put 28 percent of our members in harm’s way of being dismissed.” 

The district disputes this assertion and has offered the CTU concessions like a limited appeals process for teachers whose value-added test score ratings might be erroneous.

CPS’ evaluation plan was first rolled out in March and the district wants to eventually base a slightly higher percentage of the evaluations on student performance than the state law requires.

The two sides also sparred over the question of whether teachers can legally strike over issues other than pay. The law says the district can go ahead with an evaluation system after a 90-day period of negotiations has ended. But the union says that since negotiations are still under way, it is illegal for CPS to forge ahead with the new system.

Evaluations are one of the issues cited in the union’s unfair labor practice charge against the district, another basis for the strike. The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board has set a Sept. 24 hearing on the issue in Springfield.

Meanwhile, school clinicians also spoke out another press conference about high caseloads and the need for more school resources.

Teacher recall vs. principal hiring

Emanuel, speaking at a press conference at Tarkington Elementary, said that although he believed teachers were not allowed to strike over some of its issues, “my view is to work these issues out at the table” rather than seek an injunction. against the strike.

At Tarkington, which is run by the Academy for Urban School Leadership, Emanuel was flanked by principals who emphasized the importance of having hiring authority at their schools, something the district says would be jeopardized by giving in to union demands on teacher recall and hiring preference.

The CTU wants displaced teachers to be given preference for future jobs, but CPS has held firm on denying the preference.  CPS has offered to give those in the displaced teachers pool an interview for any job they apply for and an explanation if they aren’t hired.

 “I think they should go through the interview process, just like anyone else,” said Maria McManus, the principal at STEM Magnet Academy. “I hired a displaced teacher, and she’s phenomenal. I have no problem with that, but I was able to select her.”

In the expired contract, displaced teachers had 10 months at their current pay rate to find a new position, and according to Appendix H of the teachers’ contract, have the right to interview for any open positions they are qualified for.

Under CPS’ new contract proposal, the district is offering teachers from closing schools jobs in the schools their students would be sent to, if there is a vacancy.  Otherwise, they could choose to get severance pay of three months or a 5-month stint in the displaced teacher pool.

Other teachers – possibly including those laid off for economic reasons or because their position was re-defined – would have a year of recall rights for the same school and position.

But McManus said even the preferential reassignment for teachers at closing schools might be too much.

CPS board member Mahalia Hines, a former principal, said it should be easy for good teachers to find another job.

“I have never known good people not to get a job,” Hines said.

Hines added that at one of the schools where she was a principal, in Englewood, it took her two years to get the right staff in place. The school wouldn’t have improved, she said, “if  I had not been able to select my teachers in that war zone.” 

The press conference came shortly after Joenile Albert-Reese, the principal at Pritzker Elementary, sent a letter signed by about 30 principals to CTU’s Lewis saying that “we think it’s imperative that principals be given the autonomy they need in the hiring process to do what is necessary to support our students and their learning. … Without this autonomy, principals may be forced to hire individuals whose skill set and value systems are not conducive to the school’s culture, mission, and vision.”

Union makes case for classroom impact

Out of 49 contract articles under negotiation, CTU says, the two parties have only come to agreement on six.

At two press conferences, CTU made the case that its fight impacts students in the classroom.

The Mental Health Movement, which was responsible for occupying mental health clinics that Emanuel closed, joined with school clinicians on Tuesday to call for more social workers hired as part of the teacher’s contract.

The teachers’ union has publicly demanded more clinicians but, considering the district’s financial situation, it may be unrealistic.

David Temkin, a social worker at Near North Therapeutic Day School, a public school for significantly disabled students, said he doesn’t expect that the demand will be met. However, he thinks the strike is a good time to draw attention to the lingering issue.

CPS has about 380 school social workers for 350,000 students.

Numerous labor leaders also gathered at a press conference outside the board headquarters to continue painting the issues in terms of school resources.

Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said that class sizes are higher in Chicago than in the rest of the state.

And Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that the strike was “a struggle for the heart and soul of public education for the kids of Chicago.”

“This is a city that has had the so-called reforms that are being championed [nationally] for 15 years,” Weingarten says.

And Tom Balanoff, the president of SEIU Local 1, which represents CPS janitors, said that starting on Friday they would have the option of walking off the job in solidarity with teachers.

“We are tired of students in oversized classrooms. We are tired of 96 percent of schools without full-time social workers,” said Jackson Potter, the union’s staff coordinator.

He suggested the district’s evaluation system would lead to teacher turnover, worsening disruptions in the lives of students. “This is about failed policies and experiments on children,” Potter said.

When pressed on whether the contract would change any of the other issues the union had cited, Potter replied: “We are hopeful that it will.”

If a tentative deal is reached, CTU plans to call together its House of Delegates, which would vote on calling off the strike. That is a typical practice for the CTU, said Debbie Lynch, who was president during the union’s 2003 strike authorization. The full contract would typically be ratified by a vote of the union’s entire membership.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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