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Chicago teachers' bargaining team rejects contract offer

CHICAGO (Reuters) - A bargaining team for the Chicago teachers’ union on Monday unanimously rejected a contract offer from the financially troubled city, raising the possibility of a strike and possibly causing a new embarrassment for embattled Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The rejection means the union and Chicago Board of Education will enter a final stage of talks to avert a possible strike, which could come as early as May 23.

Chicago Public Schools officials had been hoping to relay positive developments on its teachers’ contract to potential buyers of its $875 million of bonds expected to sell this week. On Friday, the district was hit with another downgrade of its already-junk rating.

The union said in a statement that the offer “does not address the difficult conditions in the schools, the lack of services to our neediest students or address the long-term fiscal crisis that threatens to gut public education in the city.”

Earlier, the union had said it had received “a serious offer” from the Chicago Board of Education after more than a year of negotiations, which included raising teachers’ contributions to pension costs along with moderate salary increases.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said educators do not believe the board will honor its promises.

“This speaks again to the lack of trust,” Lewis said of the vote.

CPS CEO Forrest Claypool said he was “disappointed” with the decision, but remained committed to “returning to the bargaining table, and working around the clock to reach an agreement.”

Teachers in the country’s third-largest school system voted overwhelmingly in December to authorize a strike, which would be their second since 2012. They face the possibility of thousands of layoffs.

The potential for a strike, plus a decision last week to delay an $875 million bond sale, has increased the political strain on Emanuel, former chief of staff to President Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, a proposal pushed by Illinois’ Republican lawmakers for a state takeover and potential bankruptcy filing for the schools made some investors nervous.

The district, which serves about 400,000 students, is struggling with a structural budget deficit of at least $1 billion and cash flow that is dependent on borrowing. Emanuel has blamed state government for the shortfall.

A recent violent crime wave and highly-publicized police shootings of black citizens have also hurt Emanuel among voters. A Chicago Tribune poll released on Monday showed Emanuel’s approval rating at a record low of 27 percent.

Additional reporting by Karen Pierog, editing by G Crosse and David Gregorio