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Vallas: ‘We Really Never Came Close To Ever Having A Strike’

Former Chicago Public Schools chief Paul Vallas (right), with former mayoral candidate Gery Chico. (Credit/File Photo: Craig Dellimore/WBBM)

Former Chicago Public Schools chief Paul Vallas (right), with former mayoral candidate Gery Chico. (Credit/File Photo: Craig Dellimore/WBBM)

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CHICAGO (CBS) — Former Chicago Public Schools chief executive officer Paul Vallas says teachers never came close to a strike during his tenure in the 1990s and early 2000s, but times – and the national debate about education reform – have changed.

Speaking to CBS 2’s Kris Gutierrez and Susan Carlson Tuesday morning, Vallas said relations with the Chicago Teachers Union were consistently positive when he was at the helm of CPS from 1995 until 2001, under retired Mayor Richard M. Daley.

“We really never came close to ever having a strike or even a contract with arbitration, so our approach was to meet with the union monthly – even when we were not in contract negotiations, and constantly be resolving issues,” Vallas said. “So we always really negotiated contracts and concluded our negotiations well ahead of time, so I’ve never been in those rooms at the last minute.”

Vallas said teachers’ strikes are never a good idea, but it is clear that teachers are angry for a reason.

“Teachers should never strike. It only hurts the kids. And deadlines for negotiations are artificial and they’re created by adults in the room, so you can always extend those deadlines – particularly if you’re negotiating with pay,” he said. “But when you get a 90 percent pro-strike vote, obviously, teachers are angry, and part of that anger is fueled by just the challenges of the job, and another part of the anger is that there’s an increasingly strident national debate over education reform, and teachers have a tendency to be scapegoated.”

He said both sides on the debate, nationally, are “shouting at each other,” and the union seems to be making a political point and pushing back on what has been happening to labor nationally.

But Vallas said a strike is not the right way to do that.

“If the union has been trying to make a political point, pushing back what’s been happening to labor nationally, it’s wrong to do it on the picket line. It’s wrong to do it through a strike,” he said. “They should be doing it at the legislature or the ballot box.”

He said the deal on the table is reasonable, with a 16 percent salary increase over four years, and factoring only 25 percent of student performance into one’s evaluation. But he questioned whether even CPS’ proposed deal was affordable.

Vallas said times have changed since his day at the helm of CPS.

So I think at this point, I think the unions made the point. It’s important now to get this deal done, because the deal that’s on the table – I mean, a 16 percent salary increase over four years, and factoring only 25 percent of student performance into one’s evaluation – I mean, that’s first of all, a huge tax increase, and a modest accountability provision, having any contract settlement. So I think what’s on the table is very reasonable. My question is whether or not it’s affordable.”

“I think what’s happening nationally is really the camps have hardened because of the school reform rhetoric that’s occurring nationally. I mean, nationally, the pro-reformers, the anti-reformers – they’re really in two camps where the rhetoric is flowing left and right, and I think what’s happening to labor nationally is manifesting itself in kind of this strident attitude that’s taking place in Chicago,” he said.

Vallas took over CPS after the Illinois General Assembly gave Mayor Daley direct control of the Public Schools. He was known for his efforts at school reform, which focused on improving test scores, expanding the International Baccalaureate program and other initiatives, and pressuring low-performing schools to improve.

But his relations with the Teachers Union were not always rosy. Shortly before Vallas resigned in 2001, Debbie Lynch defeated his ally, Tom Reese, as head of the union by running on an anti-Vallas platform.

In 2002, Vallas ran for governor in the Democratic primary, only to be defeated by Rod Blagojevich. He later ran the schools in Philadelphia and ran the Recovery School District of Louisiana, and now serves as interim superintendent for the public schools in Bridgeport, Conn.