Talks aimed at settling the Chicago teachers strike inched along Wednesday, while away from the bargaining table debate focused on how Mayor Rahm Emanuel's hand-picked school board would implement an anticipated spate of school closings took center stage.
"Nobody knows" how many schools will be closed or consolidated, Emanuel said, a day after sources told the Tribune that the plan being considered calls for shuttering 80 to 120 sparsely populated and underperforming public schools, mostly on the West and South sides.
"There have been other issues ahead of that," Emanuel said, noting again the importance of getting 350,000 children back in school. "That has not been decided at this point."
As he spoke with reporters, negotiators for the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools met at the Chicago Hilton and Towers on Michigan Avenue for their third bargaining session since the strike began at midnight Sunday. Late Tuesday, the district presented a revised contract proposal to the union and asked for a detailed response.
"This agreement, these negotiations, are really in the hands of the (Chicago) Teachers Union," Barbara Byrd-Bennett, chief education adviser for CPS, said as she went into Wednesday's bargaining session.
Emanuel and school officials have blamed the union for the strike, saying negotiations could have continued while students were in the classroom.
The district released its latest proposal to the media early Wednesday evening, saying it would have done so earlier but never got a chance to present it formally to CTU President Karen Lewis.
Under the district's proposal, teacher raises would be structured differently, as requested by the union; evaluations of tenured teachers during the first year could not result in dismissal; later evaluations could be appealed; and health insurance rates would hold steady if the union agreed to take part in a wellness program.
The new proposal also removes the district's ability to rescind raises because of an economic crisis. The board stripped teachers of a 4 percent raise last year, sparking union distrust of the mayor.
School officials said Lewis, who has led union negotiations, had not met with district negotiators as of early Wednesday evening. But Lewis, who was at the Hilton throughout the day, noted that officials from each side had met and said she reviewed the district's proposal.
"There's some movement forward," Lewis said early Wednesday of the CPS offer. "There's some movement backward. And what we would like to do is continue to move forward."
Byrd-Bennett came out shortly before 9 p.m. Wednesday and said, "We made some progress. Some pretty neat progress."
Lewis said the issues of anticipated school closings and continued pace of charter school openings — charters are privately run, publicly funded schools that employ non-CTU teachers — are affecting negotiations, particularly the issue of recalling teachers laid off when schools are closed or consolidated.
"That's why we have such an issue on recalls," Lewis said Wednesday morning. She later added, during a break in talks, that experienced, dedicated teachers, many of them African-American, could see their careers destroyed by the district's plans.
"We understand that whole movement of closing schools and doing it aggressively," she said.
"The problem is — I guess that's why we're all here — we either do this together in some reasonable way or we will always be fighting, and I think the key is that the people that are making these decisions want to make them unilaterally," Lewis said. "They affect our children. They affect our teachers. So, if you are going to make decisions, instead of sitting in an air-conditioned building with your spreadsheets, come talk to us, and look and see what's really going on."
The issues of recall and how to evaluate teachers have been cited as crucial in recent days, while there has been little if any debate over a proposed salary boost that would average 16 percent over four years.
To pay for those raises, which could cost the cash-starved district $320 million over four years, other expenses would have to be cut. The money-saving tactics could include closing schools and shifting public school students to charters that mostly hire lower-paid, nonunion workers and get additional funding from philanthropic sources.
Emanuel did not specify how the district would pay for the raises, saying only that "they've worked through those issues" and "teachers are the most important resource."
He also said there is no specific target for the number of new charter schools that will be added to the district. "I don't have a fixed number," he said, noting that 19,000 students who applied for charters were turned away for lack of space.
In a proposal to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made earlier this year, the district proposed opening 60 charter schools over five years.
Tribune reporters Bridget Doyle and Joel Hood contributed.
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