CHICAGO -- Chicago's teachers reached an interim agreement with the school district Tuesday on plans for a longer school day, a major sticking point in contract negotiations that had fueled fears of a teachers' strike in the coming weeks.
Neither side said the agreement averts a strike and talks will continue on pay and other issues. But it allows the district to provide students with more instructional time – 52 minutes more for elementary students – by hiring additional teachers for enrichment programs so that current teachers will not work a longer day.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has championed the longer school day. Teachers were demanding a hike in pay for the additional work, but the city said the desperate financial straits of the school system made a big raise impossible.
"It was not a question of whether we were going to have a longer school day," Emanuel told reporters Tuesday. "We were going to have that. The question was how we're going to do that and today's agreement reflects that. And we can't, as I said, afford not to give our kids a longer school day."
The teachers' demand for more pay in exchange for the extended school day was one of the main disagreements behind fears of a teachers' strike. In a recent vote, more than 90 percent of the city's teachers authorized a strike should talks break down.
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said Tuesday that the agreement to staff a longer school day is a "step in the right direction" and a victory for students and teachers. Lewis said the school district had "finally backed off" its "unworkable" plan for a longer school day.
She said the district would now staff the longer day with nearly 500 tenured teachers who were laid off during the past three years. Principals must hire those teachers into the new positions, Lewis said.
"We actually presented this (proposal) months ago and it was rejected out of hand," Lewis said.
Lewis cautioned that a strike is still possible.
"We have a 98 percent strike authorization vote. That has not changed. We have a long way to go before this contract is settled," Lewis said.
The agreement allows elementary students to receive 52 additional minutes of instructional time each day, with six hours of instruction and 45 minutes for recess and lunch, according to a fact sheet released by the city. Students will be in school for 7 hours each day, an increase of 75 minutes.
For high school students, the agreement means an additional 46 instructional minutes with six hours and eight minutes of instructional time four days a week. Students will be in school for 7.5 hours a day, an increase of 36 minutes four days a week. One day each week, the day will end 75 minutes early.