CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chicago Teachers Union delegates decided on Sunday to extend their weeklong strike until at least Wednesday to give them time to consult with rank-and-file members before voting to suspend the walkout.
In a surprise decision, union President Karen Lewis said that some 800 delegates meeting on Sunday to review a new contract agreement negotiated with Mayor Rahm Emanuel decided that they needed more time to consider whether to go back to work.
“A clear majority (of the delegates) wanted to stay out. That’s why we are staying out,” Lewis told a news conference after a three-hour meeting.
Before the meeting, Lewis had said she would ask the delegates to suspend the strike by 29,000 teachers, school nurses and other support staff.
The decision was a setback for the union leadership that had appeared to have strong support for its confrontation with Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Both sides claimed some victories in the new agreement.
Emanuel compromised on the design of the first update of the evaluation system for Chicago teachers in 40 years, according to details of the agreement released by both sides. He agreed to phase in the new plan over several years and reduced the weighting of standardized test results in reviewing teachers.
Teachers won some job-security protections and prevented the introduction of merit pay in their contract.
The Chicago strike has shone a bright light on a fierce national debate over how to reform failing inner-city schools. The union believes that more money and resources should be given to neighborhood public schools to help them improve.
Emanuel and a legion of financiers and philanthropists believe that failing schools should be closed and reopened with new staff and principals to give the students the best chance of improving academically.
In Chicago, more than 80 neighborhood schools have been closed in the last decade as the enrollment has declined by about 20 percent.
At the same time, 96 so-called charter schools have been opened. Charters are controversial because they are publicly funded but non-union and not subject to some public school rules and regulations. Their record of improving student academic performance is mixed, studies show.
Lewis and the union argue that charters are undermining public education.
“We work very hard,” said Rhonda McLeod, a special-education teacher at a neighborhood school on Chicago’s South Side and one of the delegates who voted on Sunday. “To say a teacher comes in and phones it in is the biggest lie I ever heard.”
The agreement calls for a 3 percent raise this year and 2 percent in each of the next two years. If the agreement is extended for an optional fourth year, teachers get a 3 percent increase. The increases will result in an average 17.6 increase over four years, the district said.
The deal could worsen the Chicago Public Schools financial crisis. Emanuel said the contract will cost $295 million over four years, or $74 million per year.
Debt rating agencies had previously warned that the new agreement with teachers could bust the school district budget and lead to a downgrade of its credit rating.
The district has drained all its financial reserves to cover an expected budget deficit over the next year and has levied the maximum property tax allowed by law.
Lewis said that teachers also fear that when the strike ends, Emanuel will soon announce the closing of scores of schools to save money to pay for the new contract with teachers and to make room for opening more charter schools.
Teachers won a concession from Emanuel that half of all teachers hired by the district must be union members laid off from school closings.
Additional reporting by Peter Bohan; Writing by Greg McCune; editing by Eric Beech and Philip Barbara