The two sides waging a public tug of war over the future of Chicago Public Schools playfully sparred Tuesday night in a live debate over contentious issues including a longer school day and teacher pay and evaluations.
But CPS chief Jean-Claude Brizard and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis also found common ground on what it takes to improve the city's sagging neighborhood schools and expand education options for all students in the city.
Speaking in front of an audience of about 700 people, many of whom were teachers and union supporters, at the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum, Brizard deflected criticism that his administration was trying to bypass the union in its effort to lengthen the CPS school day by 90 minutes.
"The votes have been led by the union delegates, not by the principals," Brizard said, drawing groans from the audience. "Our job was to make sure principals are following the (teachers') contract, and to make sure the union delegate is following the contract as well so the process becomes seamless."
Brizard has promised to lengthen the school day by 90 minutes across CPS beginning next school year.
But in a controversial move, the district has created financial incentives for elementary schools whose teachers sign waiver forms to lengthen the day this school year by essentially voiding rights carved out in the current teachers' contract.
Seven elementary schools have signed such waivers despite opposition from the teachers union. In exchange, teachers receive about a 2 percent salary bonus this year, and their schools are awarded up to $150,000 in money to use how they see fit.
"There wasn't a proposal, there was rhetoric," Lewis said Tuesday. "As teachers, we like to plan ahead. Look, this is political, this is rhetoric. It has nothing to do with quality; we want quality education for our students."
The union last week filed a formal complaint with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, alleging that CPS' waiver policy was improper and that it's being used illegally to circumvent the collective bargaining process.
Brizard countered: "In this world, there is no magic bullet. There is no panacea. What a longer school day will do is actually give (teachers) the tools to get stuff done."
One area of agreement came when a CPS teacher asked both why more couldn't be done at schools to help parents in poor communities to better prepare their child for school.
Whatever CPS looks like in the future, Brizard and Lewis said, parents have to take a more active role in the education process.
"In some neighborhoods in some schools, we've become everything to some children," Brizard said. "Parental engagement is critical. I don't think we've done enough, honestly, to open the doors."
The discussion was organized by the Tribune as part of its Chicago Forward series of events.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun