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 country'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 students safe, off the streets, and occupied.
"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."
Some 28,000 teachers and support staff were expected to join the picket. Among teachers protesting Monday morning outside Charles Darwin Elementary School on Chicago's North Side, seventh-grade teacher Emma Jackson said she wanted a quick contract resolution.
"I don't like the idea of a strike, but we are overworked and underpaid...we need to resolve this quickly" Jackson 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 130 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 extra 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 few students arrived at some schools, Esther Sanchez said she wouldn't leave her daughter with an adult she didn't know. Her daughter, Esperanza, started school just a week earlier.
"I don't understand why Emanuel is being so stubborn: give the teachers what they want so my baby can go back to school," Sanchez said at Rudy Lozano Elementary in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood before turning around and taking her daughter home.
Some students expressed anger, blaming the school district for interrupting their education.
"They're not hurting the teachers, they're hurting us," said Moniqua Jones , a 17-year-old student at Jones College Prep High School. She said her mother made her come to class to do homework so she "wouldn't suck up her light bill."
But there was anger toward teachers, as well.
"I think it's crazy. Why are they even going on strike?" asked Mike Thompson, a 16-year-old student at Jones.
Emanuel and the union officials have much at stake. Unions and collective bargaining by public employees have recently come under criticism in many parts of the country, and all sides are closely monitoring who might emerge with the upper hand in the Chicago dispute.
The timing also may be inopportune for Emanuel, whose city administration is wrestling with a spike in murders and shootings in some city neighborhoods and who just agreed to take a larger role in fundraising for Obama's re-election campaign.
"They're going to lose learning time," said Margarita Simmons, whose son is in the sixth grade on the city's Northwest Side. "And if the whole afternoon they're going to be free, it's bad. My boy has to learn and I have to go to work."
The school board was offering a fair and responsible contract that would most of the union's demands after "extraordinarily difficult" talks, board president David Vitale said. Emanuel said the district offered the teachers a 16 percent pay raise over four years, doubling an earlier offer.
Lewis said among the issues of concern was a new evaluation that she said would be unfair to teachers because it relied too heavily on students' standardized test scores and does not take into account external factors that affect performance, including poverty, violence and homelessness.
She said the evaluations could result in 6,000 teachers losing their jobs within two years. City officials disagreed and said the union has not explained how it reached that conclusion.
Emanuel said the evaluation would not count in the first year, as teachers and administrators worked out any kinks. Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said the evaluation "was not developed to be a hammer," but to help teachers improve.
When he took office last year, Emanuel inherited a school district facing a $700 million budget shortfall. Not long after, his administration rescinded 4 percent raises for teachers. He then asked the union to reopen its contract and accept 2 percent pay raises in exchange for lengthening the school day for students by 90 minutes. The union refused.
Emanuel, who promised a longer school day during his campaign, then tried to go around the union by asking teachers at individual schools to waive the contract and add 90 minutes to the day. He halted the effort after being challenged by the union before the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board.
The district and union agreed in July on how to implement the longer school day, striking a deal to hire back 477 teachers who had been laid off rather than pay regular teachers more to work longer hours.