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Chicago teachers vote to return to work

From the CNN Wire Staff
updated 9:59 PM EDT, Tue September 18, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Union leader says mayor "had an education agenda he wanted to ram down our throats"
  • Union says teachers, support staff will return to work on Wednesday
  • A tentative contract agreement was reached Sunday
  • Rank and file still need to vote on the new deal

Chicago (CNN) -- Hundreds of thousands of Chicago schoolchildren will return to class Wednesday after the teachers union voted to suspend its strike.

About 800 union officers and delegates met for just over two hours before there was an overwhelming voice vote to suspend the walkout, union leaders said Tuesday.

The contract agreement with the school system still needs to be ratified by the more than 29,000 teachers and support staff who are members of the union. Karen Lewis, union president, said the rank and file will vote in "the next couple of weeks."

Chicago Public Schools, the third-largest U.S. school system, and the union struck a tentative bargain Friday afternoon. But on Sunday, union members decided to continue the walkout while they reviewed the proposal.

"Well, I think it is the best deal we could get at this moment in time," Lewis said before the meeting. Afterwards, she said there was no such thing as a perfect contract, and that not every member of the union would be pleased.

That included people like Benita Whitfield Shanklin, a social worker who voted no on Tuesday.

"I have two different feelings at the same time -- happy that we are so solid and we're a tight working unit," she said, "but at the same time I'm sad that we weren't able to make any progress on class sizes and the school closures. We have a lot of parents that were supporting us, and I feel like we let them down."

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the new contract is "an honest compromise."

Emanuel highlighted the fact that the new school day would be longer for many students. He said that a child who enters kindergarten under the terms of the new agreement would receive 2 1/2 more years of instruction by the time he graduated.

"In this contract we gave our children a seat at the table," he said at a news conference.

Lewis told CNN's "Erin Burnett OutFront" that Emanuel had tried to bully her union members.

"The mayor had an education agenda he wanted to ram down our throats," she said. "The fact is that we were still able to enjoin our members to move as one. And I think that powerful message (is) when you work together, you accomplish magnificent things. We still want to work with the board of education so we can accomplish what's really best for our kids."

Parents and city officials will be happy to send about 350,000 children back to class after they missed seven school days.

"I'm just glad that everyone got what they wanted but I just wanted the children to be first," Lisa Russell, a parent, told CNN affiliate WLS. "And I believe they are first."

The school board posted a notice on its website: "Chicago Teachers Union leadership has chosen to end the strike. All Chicago Public Schools will re-open on Wednesday, September 19, and all CPS students are expected to be back in the classroom."

David Vitale, chairman of the school board, said the new deal will transform the school system to the benefit of teachers and students. He acknowledged the negotiations weren't easy.

"You need to know that our engagement was totally professional, and while it was extremely hard work, the work was done with purpose and with intent, I believe, the get our kids back to school," he said.

Darren Tuggle, who has taught high school English for 13 years, said the strike wasn't about money, rather it was about classroom conditions. He said that teachers were frustrated with the board, whose members are appointed and most of whom came from business backgrounds.

"More people are going to stand up to that," he said, referring to the situation in Chicago and to what he called the movement toward "privatization nationwide."

He said the move to a longer instructional day was like making a bowl of soup into a larger bowl of soup: It only makes it bigger, not necessarily tastier.

"We need to really be looking at ways to make things better and doing it in a smart way," he said. "There was no discussion about quality (from the school board)."

Q&A: What's behind the Chicago teachers' strike?

Teachers walked off the job September 10, objecting to a longer school day, evaluations tied to student performance and job losses from school closings. Parents have juggled their families' schedules for more than a week to make sure their children are attended to while schools are closed.

One parent on the impact of the strike

This contract calls for longer school days for elementary and high school-age students, 10 more "instructional days" each school year and a single calendar for the entire school system, as opposed to the two schedules now in place, depending on the school.

The pay structure would change with a 3% pay increase for the first year of the contract, 2% for the second year and 2% for the third year. If a trigger extends the contract to four years, teachers will get a 3% pay increase. Union members would no longer be compensated for unused personal days, health insurance contribution rates would be frozen, and the "enhanced pension program" would be eliminated.

Why they teach despite it all

As is, the median base salary for teachers in the Chicago public schools in 2011 was $67,974, according to the system's annual financial report.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said that the schools had improved measurably in the past year in test scores. The graduation rate was the highest and the dropout rate was the lowest in history.

"With this agreement now we have the foundation for transformation," he said.

For high school athletes, strike could put scholarships on the line

CNN's Kyung Lah reported from Chicago and Greg Botelho from Atlanta. CNN's Ted Rowlands, Chris Welch, Katherine Wojtecki and Ed Payne also contributed to this report.

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