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Teachers Strike Reaches Day 4, But Both Sides Optimistic

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Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis (left) and other union officials were all smiles after ending another day of contract talks with Chicago Public Schools officials on the third day of the teachers' strike. Both sides called Wednesday's talks productive. (Credit: CBS)

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis (left) and other union officials were all smiles after ending another day of contract talks with Chicago Public Schools officials on the third day of the teachers’ strike. Both sides called Wednesday’s talks productive. (Credit: CBS)

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UPDATED 09/13/12 – 12:08 a.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) — For the first time since the Chicago teachers’ strike started on Monday, both Chicago Public Schools officials and the Chicago Teachers Union were on the same page about the progress of contract talks, saying Wednesday’s meeting was a productive one.

It didn’t start that way, however, as the two sides didn’t sit down for formal talks until around 7 p.m., even though they originally planned to start at 11 a.m.

However, CTU President Karen Lewis and Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale were both smiling when they ended talks for the day around 11:30 p.m.

Both said the two sides made good progress on the thorny issue of teacher evaluations, which has been one of two serious sticking points all week.

“We feel like we’re in a pretty good place. We’ve made a lot of progress today,” Lewis said. “We still have a lot of work to do, but it seems like we are definitely coming much closer together than we were, certainly this morning.”

Vitale echoed that sentiment.

“We had a very productive evening; really good discussions and proposals on the most difficult issues that we face,” he said. “I really think we shared a lot of back-and-forth on what really needs to get done to solve those most difficult issues.”

The union has been resisting the district’s push to implement a new teacher evaluation system that was part of a state law passed in 2010, which would rely heavily on students’ standardized test scores. Lewis said Thursday night that she was encouraged both sides seemed to be making compromises in order to put that issue to bed.

Talks will resume at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday.

Both Vitale and Lewis also said they were hopeful the strike could end and students could be back in class by Friday.

“Unfortunately, they’re not going to be in school tomorrow, and we’ll hope for Friday,” Vitale said.

Asked if teachers could be back at work by the end of the week, Lewis said, “we certainly hope so. … We would like to get this done. I think everybody would like to get this done before the holidays. That would be important.”

Earlier, Lewis had said she is concerned that, after a contract is reached, CPS reportedly plans to close up to 120 schools, leaving thousands of experienced teachers being replaced.

“We are very concerned about the news we heard today about closing … schools. We have a real problem with it,” she said.

Lewis said, although the school board drew up a new contract proposal Tuesday night in an effort to reach a compromise, she believes, once a deal is inked, thousands of good teachers jobless could be left jobless due to school closings.

“The board seems to be wedded to proposals that will lead to thousands of experienced and dedicated teachers being replaced, and actually having their careers destroyed,” Lewis said.

Lewis also said she’s very concerned that, when schools close and teachers are displaced, minority teachers and students seem to be affected most. She’s seeking contract language that would help schools and neighborhoods keep more teachers who resemble their community.

Vitale denied that there are any definitive plans on school closings, but acknowledged the district needs to find a way to reduce the number of empty seats in school buildings, due to many schools with very low enrollment. He said there are approximately 135,000 “excess seats” in the CPS system.

“I think the public knows that we have an excess of seat capacity in the system, and as we do our financial planning going forward, one of the issues that we have to deal with is excess seat capacity,” Vitale said. “There is no plan sitting on the table today, with respect to what people call school closings; what I like to call dealing with the issue of excess seat capacity.”

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio Political Editor Craig Dellimore Reports

Earlier Wednesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel did not deny reports he plans to close or consolidate 80 to 120 schools, but he did say he wants more charter schools, because the demand is there.

WBBM Newsradio Political Editor Craig Dellimore reports the mayor claimed there are 19,000 more students who want to attend charters, which run specialized curricula and employ non-union teachers.

“I want to make that available to them,” Emanuel said. “I want to expand our junior ROTC, I want to expand our selective enrollment.”

The mayor also urged teachers to go back to work during contract talks, while the two sides try to hammer out an agreement on the two biggest sticking points: a new teacher evaluation system, and re-hiring teachers who have lost their jobs due to school closings or other reasons.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio Political Editor Craig Dellimore Reports

Emanuel pointed out the city of Boston just agreed to a new contract with its teachers, after working through similar issues without a strike. The mayor insisted there’s no reason teachers can’t work while still bargaining in good faith with CPS.

“There is nothing that can’t be worked through while our kids stay in the classroom. My staff, as well as the Chicago Public School leadership team, is committed to working through these issues, never leaving the table, to get this job done,” Emanuel said. “Those issues can be negotiated simultaneously, while our kids are in the classroom learning. Our kids belong in the classroom learning and the negotiators belong in the negotiating room, working through these issues. But, none of the issues are such that you can’t do both simultaneously.”

Meantime, CPS officials have released copies of a two-page handwritten note from Lewis from last Thursday, which CPS said was the union’s latest written response.

The note reads, in part, “These are our bottom lines. … Not 11th hour bottom lines, because we are sincere about settlement.”

It also discusses a two-year duration for the contract, and mentions money; specifically “2% + steps” — referring to step increases available to teachers based on experience.

The release of those notes was one way for the school board to point fingers at Lewis, who they have criticized for saying at a teachers rally on Tuesday that the contract talks were “the silly part of my day.”

As she headed into the talks on Wednesday, Byrd-Bennett said, “I need to share with you and the larger community that it’s all but silly. We take these negotiations incredibly serious. It’s not silly that our athletes are sitting on the sidelines, and about to forfeit opportunities for college.

“It’s not silly that we have parents who are stressed out about child care. It’s not silly that, in fact, we have 350,000 children who are missing more than 20 hours of education, and it certainly isn’t silly that we spent over 10 hours yesterday attempting to bridge the gap and to really get an agreement closed.”

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s John Cody Reports

About 100 teachers were gathered in front of Chicago Public Schools headquarters, 125 S. Clark St., for the third day in a row Wednesday. They arrived around 6:30 a.m., and they say they won’t be going anywhere until there is a fair contract.

“The idea that somehow this is fun or a walk in the park for us is completely off base,” CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said. “The board’s spin on this is that the teachers aren’t striking over serious issues. Well, they’re serious to us. Our concern is what the board is saying is that we’re not moving anymore on the critical issues, and so we’re done negotiating. And if that’s the case, we could be in for a long strike.”

Also still unsettled is the teachers’ desire for a policy allowing teachers who have been laid off by a school closure to be recalled, although Vitale said some progress was made on that issue on Thursday.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan – himself a former CPS superintendent – weighed in on the strike Tuesday.

“I hope that the parties will come together to settle this quickly and get our kids back in the classroom,” Duncan said in a statement. “I’m confident that both sides have the best interests of the students at heart, and that they can collaborate at the bargaining table – as teachers and school districts have done all over the country – to reach a solution that puts kids first.”

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