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It’s crunch time—talks go on as teacher strike deadline looms

It’s now a matter of hours whether Chicago’s teachers will strike in the morning, as the union’s leadership as well as its 40-member Big Bargaining Team enter 11th hour talks with the Board of Education and mayor’s office.

The Chicago Teachers Union is preparing to picket outside schools and Chicago Public Schools starting at 6 a.m. Tuesday, handing out “ON STRIKE” signs from a strike headquarters in the West Loop, and advising its 25,000 members to check email later Monday and listen to the evening news.

It’ll take a tentative agreement Monday between the Board of Education and union negotiators to avert a planned teacher walkout. And that means selling not only union leadership on the deal, but also the Big Bargaining Team, the same body of 40 members who promptly and unanimously nixed a formal contract proposal CPS presented in January.

But this time, the Big Bargaining Team has been more closely looped into talks in real time than in January, when an offer CTU President Karen Lewis considered “serious” was passed onto them. The 40 teachers, clinicians and aides were scheduled to join negotiations starting Monday at noon at SEIU headquarters on the near South Side.

As of about 3:45 p.m. Monday, the talks continued, according to a union spokeswoman, who also said the decision to continue or to stop the strike will happen later in the evening when CTU leaders will speak publicly. “I do not know what time they are scheduled to conclude,” Stephanie Gadlin said.

RELATED: What you should know about pending CTU strike

Meanwhile, Gadlin said the union has requested an extra $500 per pupil from CPS “in order to stabilize schools and strengthen classrooms,” and don’t want to see their pay cut. Classroom conditions aren’t legally strikeable but disagreements over pay and benefits are.

Sources said Mayor Rahm Emanuel is prepared to “substantially” increase his offer of tax-increment-financing funds to the Chicago Public Schools beyond the $32 million surplus already built into the budget.

After a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the opening of a new Mariano’s grocery store in Bronzeville, Mayor Rahm Emanuel refused to discuss the marathon negotiations aimed at averting Chicago’s second teachers strike in four years.

“It’s every right for you to ask. But, literally as I’m here cutting the ribbon, there are people at the table negotiating. … I don’t want to get ahead of myself, and I don’t want to get ahead of the table because part of what works at a table is a sense of trust that you can negotiate at the table, and I don’t want to go around that process,” the mayor said.

“Generally, I would say there’s a positive working environment to seek, what I think is a shared goal. Our kids are in school tomorrow. Our teachers are teaching them …. And that we have something that honors the work of our teachers and helps us do it in a way that also honors the hard work of our taxpayers who are being asked to also pay the bill. That’s our goal. And my No. 1 priority is to keep kids in school safe. And I think that’s shared by everybody who’s working through the issues.”

The mayor stayed on message, even when a television reporter quoted teachers who appear to be “determined” to strike for extraneous issues that have nothing to do with salary and benefits.

“The good news is, everybody’s got their sleeves rolled up working towards an honest agreement that reflects everybody’s interest,” he said.

“My interests are to make sure our kids are in school learning and continue to make educational gains and do it in a way that reflects the budget constraints we’re all living under.”

During an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times last week, Emanuel stressed that he has provided a 25 percent TIF surplus in every one of his five budgets and “created a policy around that.”

The mayor also noted that he has “eliminated and shut down 18 TIF’s, more than anybody has ever done” while directing “over 80 percent” of TIF spending to schools, libraries, parks or transportation.

“I’m not gonna let you skip the history because it’s important for your readers. TIF over the years has become a dirty word and they should know that there have been changes,” he said.

The mayor was asked whether a school system that is losing enrollment can withstand another strike or whether he’s concerned that parents would run for the hills if teachers walk off the job again.

“There’s a lot of academic gains — at the elementary level, the high school level and towards college. Massive gains that are far better and stronger than nationwide numbers or other urban systems. That should be a reason for people — not only to want to stay but be part of that by getting their kids enrolled. [But] any time people create uncertainty, it’s not good,” he said.

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