CHICAGO (AP) — Teachers in the nation's third-largest school district met late Sunday for a crucial vote that could end their weeklong strike, as parents and city officials alike waited for the news that could return 350,000 students to classrooms as soon as Monday morning.
The union's 800-member House of Delegates met at a union hall on the city's South Side to debate a contract proposal that gives teachers annual raises over three years and offered some laid-off teachers the first shot at jobs at other schools. A vote on whether to suspend the strike was expected later Sunday evening.
The walkout was the first for a major American city in at least six years and it drew national attention by posing a high-profile test for teachers unions, which have seen their political influence threatened by a growing reform movement.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pushed hard for a contract that includes basing teacher evaluations in part on how well students succeed and giving principals greater freedom to hire teachers they choose. Those two issues are at the center of the often contentious negotiations, which Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis at one point called "a fight for the very soul of public education."
The delegates' mood Sunday afternoon was serious, and many declined to speak with reporters. A union representative told reporters waiting outside of the closed-door meeting that it will be "a long process."
It wasn't immediately clear if the union would make a decision with enough time for the city to alert parents that classes would resume Monday. A week ago, school officials waited until late Sunday night before canceling classes after a flurry of last-minute negotiations failed to produce a contract agreement.
Many teachers headed into the vote still unhappy with the wording of some contract provisions contained in a rough outline released late Saturday by the Chicago Teachers Union, said second grade teacher Julie McDevitt. The contract outline calls for annual raises, but it doesn't restore a 4 percent raise that was rescinded last year. Teachers had also expressed concern about easing overcrowding, scarce office supplies and an evaluation procedure they said was too heavily based on student test scores.
"Some teachers are saying no and some are saying this is pretty good, let's do this," McDevitt before the meeting began. "I think it comes down now to how the contract affects your individual school."
"I'd be OK with staying out ... if our delegates aren't happy with it," she said. "I don't see the spirit of our unity dying out."
The proposal provided by the union includes a 3 percent raise in the first year and 2 percent raises in the second and third years, along with additional pay based on seniority and advanced education. The district and union would have the option of extending the contract into a fourth year, with a 3 percent raise.
The deal also would create a hiring pool aiming to give half of open jobs to laid-off teachers. It includes a new evaluation procedure based in part on student test scores, but teachers can appeal their ratings, the union said.
"We believe this is a good contract; however, no contract will solve all of the inequities in our district," said Karen Lewis, president of the 25,500-member union, in a statement Saturday. But she cautioned that the group would review the details carefully and that no decision had been made. If delegates suspend the strike, all teachers would vote on the contract at a later date.
School board spokeswoman Becky Carroll declined to comment on the specifics, saying the district would release its own version of what was in the contract.
"We feel very good about the framework and the agreement that's in place. We have every confidence that school will be back in school on Monday," she said. "Ultimately, it will rest with the outcome of the House of Delegates meeting."
The walkout, Chicago's first in in 25 years, forced more than 350,000 students out of class just after the start of the year. The last major teacher's strike in a U.S. city was in Detroit six years ago.
The strike erupted after months of bitter contract negotiations amid disagreement over a new teacher evaluation process the union felt was too heavily based on student test scores. Teachers also hoped to preserve pay increases based on their seniority and level of education, and wanted to ensure recall rights for laid-off teachers who want to work in other schools.
"I'm pretty confident that something will come together that both sides will agree on, whether that's tomorrow" or another day, said Ramses James, a sixth-grade math teacher who joined thousands of teachers and their allies for a rally Saturday in a city park.
McDevitt said that some schools would fare better than others, depending on their individual needs. The contract proposed hiring 600 additional teachers to teach physical education, art, music and languages, but didn't specify where the jobs would be filled.
The strike "put into perspective the daily life of a teacher and our basic needs to make a classroom work," she said.
"We're not office workers. We're not lucky enough to walk into a classroom and (have) everything be equipped for us," she said. "We don't open our desk drawers and see pencils ... or Post-its. We have to supply everything for those classrooms."
The contract calls for reimbursing teachers for up to $250 of what they spend out of their own pockets, but McDevitt said she's already spent $477 for classroom supplies and kids have only been in school for a week.
Associated Press writer Sophia Tareen contributed to this report.