CHICAGO — Thousands of teachers walked off the job Monday in Chicago’s first schools strike in 25 years, after union leaders announced that months-long negotiations had failed to resolve a contract dispute with school district officials by a midnight deadline.
The walkout in the nation’s third-largest school district posed a tricky challenge for the city and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who said he would push to end the strike quickly as officials figure out how to keep nearly 400,000 children safe and occupied.
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“This is not a strike I wanted,” Emanuel said Sunday night, not long after the union announced the action. “It was a strike of choice … it’s unnecessary, it’s avoidable and it’s wrong.”
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Some 26,000 teachers and support staff were expected to join the picket. Among teachers protesting Monday morning outside Benjamin Banneker Elementary School on Chicago’s South Side, eighth-grade teacher Michael Williams said he wanted a quick contract resolution.
“We hoped that it wouldn’t happen. We all want to get back to teaching,” Williams said, adding that wages and classroom conditions need to be improved.
Contract negotiations between Chicago Public School officials and union leaders that stretched through the weekend were expected to resume Monday.
Officials said some 140 schools would be open between 8:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. so the children who rely on free meals provided by the school district can eat breakfast and lunch, school district officials said.
City officials acknowledged that children left unsupervised – especially in neighborhoods with a history of gang violence – might be at risk, but vowed to protect the students’ safety.
“We will make sure our kids are safe, we will see our way through these issues and our kids will be back in the classroom where they belong,” said Emanuel, President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff.
The school district asked community organizations to provide additional programs for students, and a number of churches, libraries and other groups plan to offer day camps and other activities.
Police Chief Garry McCarthy said he would take officers off desk duty and deploy them to deal with any teachers’ protests as well as the thousands of students who could be roaming the streets.
Union leaders and district officials were not far apart in their negotiations on compensation, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said. But other issues – including potential changes to health benefits and a new teacher evaluation system based partly on students’ standardized test scores – remained unresolved, she said.
“This is a difficult decision and one we hoped we could have avoided,” Lewis said. “We must do things differently in this city if we are to provide our students with the education they so rightfully deserve.”
Before the strike, some parents said they would not drop their children at strange schools where they didn’t know the other students or supervising adults. On Monday, as only a trickle of students arrived at some schools, April Logan said she wouldn’t leave her daughter with an adult she didn’t know. Her daughter, Ashanti, started school just a week earlier.
“I don’t understand this, my baby just got into school,” Logan said at Benjamin Mays Academy on the city’s South Side before turning around and taking her daughter home.