CHICAGO – Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel spoke to a class of fifth graders Tuesday about his efforts to improve their education, but he steered clear of the one subject parents around the city are worried about: a possible teachers strike.
Emanuel spoke at Marquez Charter School on the city's Southwest Side and greeted students at other schools before he was scheduled to leave the city to address the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
Each appearance was carefully controlled, with the mayor declining to take questions about the ongoing negotiations from reporters who followed him from school to school. The teachers union has called for a strike Monday if there's no agreement on a contract.
It was the first day of classes for many of Chicago's 400,000 public school students, although those at Marquez started last month. With reporters and television cameras lining the wall of one classroom, Emanuel was clearly addressing parents with his comments about lengthening Chicago's school days and school year and enacting the most "sweeping reform for the public school system on an educational basis in over a decade."
Meanwhile, parents outside one school where Emanuel appeared expressed frustration about all they haven't heard from the schools and city as they try to prepare for what would be the first teachers strike in Chicago in a quarter century.
Lisa Villanueva, the mother of students at Shields Middle School, said the school district's plan to open some schools from 8:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. so children could eat breakfast and lunch and participate in activities would still leave her scrambling.
"I am a single mom and I don't have anybody else but myself, and I don't get off till 5:30, so it's like how am I going to work with my employer to be able to come here to pick up my kids? Because they are both little," she said.
A strike has become more likely as negotiations between the city and the union that represents more than 26,000 public school teachers have become increasingly contentious.
The school district has offered teachers a four-year contract with raises of 2 percent a year, an offer that teacher's union president Karen Lewis has repeatedly called unacceptable.
Some parents said they believe if there is a strike it will be because the city decided not to pay the teachers what they're worth and not because the teachers are greedy.
"The teachers put in long hours, buy materials themselves," said Patricia Hernandez, whose daughter is a fifth grader at Shields. "I'm not in favor of a strike, but I'm in favor of teachers getting what they deserve. ... We see the test scores [students] are getting and agree teachers should get more benefits, more pay."
Besides, said Danila Villegas, whose son is in seventh grade at the school, "The city always finds money for something else and not the education of the kids."
Emanuel is scheduled to speak at the convention Tuesday night. His spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton said he will return to Chicago on Wednesday and host, at the Obama campaign's request, a party for campaign staffers in Chicago on Thursday night.
Hamilton said a newspaper report that suggested the mayor was coming home early in large part because of the negotiations was wrong, and he had confidence that "the right people are at the [negotiating] table."