Chicago schools, union at odds over making up strike days

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CHICAGO (AP) – Even with a tentative contract agreement in place, Chicago teachers continued to picket Thursday as their union and the school district remained at odds over making up school days lost to the strike.

Chicago Teachers Union delegates representing 25,000 educators voted late Wednesday to approve a tentative deal that includes pay raises over five years, but they refused to end a strike that has canceled two weeks of classes unless the mayor adds school days to cover the lost time.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday called that demand a “nonstarter,” saying she would only be open to discussions “in the spirit of compromise.”

“This new demand to make up the missed days was never on the table,” Lightfoot said during a news conference at City Hall. “We cannot allow the CTU leadership to continue to make repeated new demands and move the goal posts unilaterally and repeatedly.”

CTU President Jesse Sharkey acknowledged Thursday that restoring all 11 days of canceled classes may not be feasible but said the amount of makeup time “can’t be zero.”

It’s unclear what would happen to teachers’ health insurance coverage if the strike continues into Friday, when Chicago Public Schools could stop their coverage. That would create an added financial burden for teachers who won’t be paid for strike days.

The union encouraged its members to fill the streets outside City Hall Thursday, hoping to pressure Lightfoot into accepting its terms. Thousands of teachers wearing red – and some wearing Halloween costumes – circled the building as snow fell. They marched behind a banner that read “This is what Democracy looks like.”

John Kane, 40, a counselor at Air Force Academy High School said the push for makeup days would help the district’s 300,000 students.

“I don’t see how it would be detrimental to the kids to get those days back,” he said.

Lightfoot has refused to lengthen the school year to make up days since the strike began Oct. 17, which she reiterated Thursday by saying she wouldn’t pay teachers “for striking.” Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson said it would require cutting winter or spring break days or adding days to the end of the year.

Sharkey said the teachers are not asking to be paid for a strike and consider a refusal to make up school days “punitive. He argued that it would ultimately hurt students, including those who must take standardized tests and college admission tests this year.

“We feel like we’re just being punished because we had the audacity to defy the mayor,” Sharkey said. “And that’s not right.”

The agreement that the 700 members of the union’s House of Delegates approved on Wednesday was not immediately released but Sharkey said some of teachers’ wins could “transform” schools in the district.

Broad outlines include a 16% raise for teachers during the five-year contract, a new committee to investigate and enforce classroom sizes that surpass limits in the agreement and funding to add social workers and nurses to the city’s schools.

“We’ve met them on every single issue,” Lightfoot said Wednesday.

Union leadership said the tentative agreement does not include additional preparation time for elementary school teachers, which was a sticking point during talks this week.

Several high school football teams that are at risk of being locked out of the state playoffs if the walkout endures got a temporary reprieve Wednesday.

The Illinois State High School Association said in a news release that the school district agreed to let the teams practice during the strike. They would not be able to play in games on Saturday if the strike hasn’t been settled by then.

The announcement came just in time for 19 schools whose teams qualified for the state playoffs because IHSA rules require teams from schools where teachers are on strike to practice for three days before they play a game.

The teams can only practice if they find coaches that have the proper certification or meet various requirements. The district did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how many of the schools had found coaches.

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Associated Press writer Sophia Tareen contributed to this report.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks about the Chicago Teachers Union strike during a press conference at City Hall, Thursday morning, Oct. 31, 2019. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)
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