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Chicago teachers vote whether to ratify deal that ended strike

Chicago Teachers Union members strike outside the Chicago Public Schools headquarters in Chicago September 18, 2012. REUTERS/John Gress
Chicago Teachers Union members strike outside the Chicago Public Schools headquarters in Chicago September 18, 2012. REUTERS/John Gress

By James B. Kelleher

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chicago public school teachers will decide on Tuesday whether to ratify an agreement with Mayor Rahm Emanuel that suspended a strike in the nation's third-largest school district.

The Chicago Teachers Union has urged its 29,000 members to ratify the proposed contract, which calls for an average 17.6 percent pay raise for teachers over four years and some benefit improvements.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis refused to say Tuesday how she voted on the contract or whether union members would ratify it.

"I don't have a crystal ball," she said. "What will happen will happen." She said approval of the deal would end the teachers' strike, which was suspended September 18 after seven school days. Ratification requires a simple majority vote.

Lewis spoke outside Dyett High School, which is slated for closure. She was at the school to cast her vote on the contract she negotiated, and to show support for students, teachers and parents opposed to Dyett's closing.

Kristine Mayle, the union's financial secretary, said voting would take place before and after classes on Tuesday at more than 600 schools and other facilities across the city. Results are expected late Wednesday night or Thursday morning, she said.

"We have couriers going out to pick up the materials and we'll be counting as fast as they bring them (votes) back to us," Mayle said.

Teachers are expected to ratify the deal, Mayle said. Last month, about 800 union delegates overwhelmingly endorsed the new contract, ending the strike.

A spokeswoman for Chicago Public Schools did not return a call or e-mail seeking comment.

The school system said the pay increases would cost an extra $74 million a year. Chicago teachers make an average of about $76,000 annually, according to the school district.

The walkout on September 10, which canceled classes for 350,000 students, was the culmination of a dramatic, yearlong showdown with Emanuel, who pushed for sweeping education reforms.

The strike was the first by Chicago teachers in 25 years and focused attention on a national debate over how to improve failing schools. Emanuel, backed by a powerful reform movement, believes poorly performing schools should be closed and reopened with new staff, or converted to "charter" schools that often are non-union and run by private groups.

At Dyett High School, Lewis criticized the district for not listening to the community.

"It was clear that when this school was put on the hit list that the voices of the community and the parents and the children were not heard - or were heard and ignored - which is, I think, even worse," Lewis said. "These are badly made decisions."

Teachers want more resources put into neighborhood public schools to help them succeed. Chicago teachers say many of their students live in poor and crime-ridden areas and this affects their learning. More than 80 percent of public school students qualify for free meals based on low family incomes.

Emanuel secured a new teacher evaluation system based in part on student standardized test scores, but he compromised on the weight given to the test scores. He also got new flexibility for principals to hire teachers.

But teachers won some job security for colleagues laid off when schools are closed. Union teachers will be the first hired when the district adds teachers.

Last week, Moody's Investor Services cut its credit rating for the Chicago Board of Education, citing, among other things, the city's deal with the teachers, which the rating agency said would make it hard for the district to implement needed budget reductions.

Moody's said other factors contributed to the downgrade, including district plans to spend reserves to fund operations in fiscal 2013, an "impending spike" in pension payments and continued delays in getting state aid.

(Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Stacey Joyce)

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