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Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel Fights Union Over Longer School Day

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Oct. 14, 2011: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks as he hosts a welcome dinner in honor of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak at the Chicago Cultural Center in Chicago. (AP)

After lobbying in parking lots, allegations of vote manipulation and a shouting match that ended with a hug, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has persuaded just 13 out of hundreds of Chicago schools to break with their union and accept cash in exchange for lengthening the school day for the city's students.

But the teachers union has cried foul and wants the schools to be forced to return to their old schedules. The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board will take up the issue Thursday when it considers a union appeal to block the longer school day from taking effect pending a hearing in December over allegations of unfair labor practices.

A reversal would be a blow to Emanuel's effort to make good on his campaign promise to keep the city's students in class longer. Teachers complain the matter has divided not only the union but individual school staffs, as some teachers are lured by cash incentives for both themselves and their schools but others fear the measure would weaken their 32,000-member union and aren't convinced the city has a good plan for how to use the extended school day.

Voting yes means waiving the negotiated hours and pay in the union's contract with the city, a year ahead of when new state legislation will allow for a longer school day anyway.

"It's not the longer day, it's how we were forced to give up some of our rights to do it," said Shelley Nation-Watson, a fifth-grade teacher at Nash Elementary School who voted against the longer school day implemented at the building. "It's not that we're refusing to do something just to be obstinate. You (have to) do it the right way."

Nation-Watson, the school's union rep, acknowledged that the additional prep and instruction time has been helpful, but said the extra money is a one-time disbursement that doesn't begin to cover the time teachers are putting in. And she said the rapid transition to a new schedule -- they had less than a week's notice -- has created problems for teachers and pupils.

Lawyers for each side will present arguments Thursday to the educational labor relations board. If the board sides with the union, it would ask a Cook County judge to block the longer school day, and schools that have already gone to a longer day would have to revert to the schedules mandated by their current contract. Schools that planned to go to the longer day in January wouldn't.

The labor board found last week that the union's allegations of unfair labor practices by school officials warranted a full hearing, set for Dec. 14.

Under Emanuel's education proposal, schools that agree to add 90 minutes of instruction time each day this school year can get up to $150,000, and teachers will get lump-sum payments equal to 2 percent of the average salary.

Recently passed education reform legislation allows for Chicago schools to lengthen the school day next year, but Emanuel did not want to wait. He says the longer school day had the support of 68 percent of parents and teachers in a recent poll.

Chicago's public schools have the shortest school day among the nation's 50 largest districts and one of the shortest school years, according to a 2007 report from the National Council on Teacher Quality. But the Chicago Teachers Union insists the city's hours of actual instruction are on par with other cities.

Emanuel's administration has trumpeted each yes vote as a victory for its Longer School Day Pioneer Program. But it's unclear how many of the district's more than 400 elementary schools have voted no because both sides cite wildly different figures: the union claims more than 100 schools have declined, while Emanuel said only four have.

Teachers union President Karen Lewis and other union leaders say they are not against a longer school day but that there's no research that proves a longer day means a better day, and Lewis called Emanuel's insistence on "90 more minutes" a slogan and not an educational policy.

"He's pitting people against each other, trying to divide the union, trying to turn parents against us," said Lewis, who described a shouting match with Emanuel over the issue in a private meeting, though acknowledged they hugged afterward.

"I don't consider it divisive," Emanuel said. "What I consider it is taking a step in the right direction and people around the country now are looking at the city of Chicago and what we're doing. This is not about the union."

Meanwhile, aggressive lobbying has occurred to vote for and against the longer school day measure at schools across the city. There even have been allegations of dirty tricks, with reports that Nash Elementary voted to extend its school day only after a non-union staffer was allowed to vote to break a 14-14 tie.

Nash Principal Tresa Dunbar has said she's turned the matter over to the school board to be investigated and has encouraged her teachers to move on with the longer day in the meantime.

"We're wasting a lot of time arguing about something we're all going to do (next year)," Dunbar said.