The city's striking teachers and the school district reached a tentative contract agreement overnight, clearing the way for a possible return to work after 16 days on the picket line.

The deal was reached in a bargaining between the Detroit Public Schools and the 9,500-member Detroit Federation of Teachers after Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick brought the two sides together in his office, school spokesman Ken Coleman said.

"This is a tentative deal, but we are optimistic" that the strike will end, Coleman said. "Our 130,000 students will be back in the classroom ... and will be able to get about the business of improving test scores."

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The union's executive committee approved the tentative agreement during a meeting later Tuesday and recommended that teachers return to work pending a ratification vote over the next few weeks. Teachers could meet Wednesday morning to vote on returning to work that day, said union spokeswoman Michelle Price. A mail ratification vote would follow.

Classes could start as early as Thursday for the students, whose school year should have started Sept. 5.

The agreement includes a pay freeze for this school year, a 1 percent increase for 2007-2008 and a 2.5 percent increase for 2008-2009, said union executive board member Vince Consiglio. It also calls for all teachers to pay 10 percent of their health insurance costs, he said. Up until now, only teachers hired after 1992 had to share in their health insurance costs.

"It's not a good contract, but it's a contract we can live with," Consiglio said.

The walkout began Aug. 28 after teachers rejected a two-year contract that would have cut pay 5.5 percent and increased co-payments for health care. The district wanted $88 million in concessions from the union to help close a $105 million deficit in its $1.36 billion budget for the fiscal year.

Union bargainers rejected an offer with a 0.75 percent pay cut the first year and increases of 1 percent and 2.5 percent the second and third years. It also would have required teachers to pay part of their health insurance costs.

The district ratcheted up its pressure on the union last week. On Friday, a judge ordered the teachers back to work, but the majority of still defied the order on Monday, district spokesman Lekan Oguntoyinbo had said. Oguntoyinbo had warned then that attorneys would go back to court to ask the judge to "enforce our rights."