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Many ask if the Chicago teachers' strike was worth it

The longest school strike in the history of Chicago is over. On Tuesday, the nation's third-largest school system reopened its doors after a 15-day walkout by teachers and other school personnel. The strikers received a 5 percent pay hike that takes effect Jan. 1 and a one-time 2.5 percent bonus.

But the final effects of the strike remain unclear.

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Although approving the contract by a 3-to-1 margin, many teachers are reportedly bitter over how little they feel they will receive. Chicago Teachers Union president Robert Healey has said the same settlement could have been reached without a strike. And some observers are frankly surprised that school superintendent Ruth Love called it a ''win-win'' situation.

The city's board of education has yet to explain exactly how it is going to pay for the added expense. It already has a projected deficit of $65 million for the 1984-85 school year.

''It's a failure for both sides,'' says -Michael J. Harrington, executive director of the Citizens Schools Committee, a public advocacy group. ''I think the system has lost a tremendous amount of confidence and respect [from the public].''

Observers are waiting to see what spending cuts the school board will make to come up with the money necessary. In addition to the pay raise, it made other concessions, such as $52 million in retroactive pension contributions. The board's spending plans and revenue estimates will be submitted to the Chicago School Finance Authority, which has the power to reject them. The authority's verdict is expected in about a month.

Since the school board has not yet released its figures, it's too early to know whether the authority will approve them, says Walter Hickey, a research associate of the Civic Federation, a local taxpayers' watchdog group. But ''it's pretty clear the teachers have done pretty well for themselves.''

From the playground of the William B. Ogden Elementary School, there is a different perspective.

''This [was] like summer vacation,'' said an exultant sixth-grader, Jay Johnson, who minutes later would have his first spelling lesson in three weeks. He added, however, ''I do think it's important to go to school.''

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Fifth-grader Beth Joyce and her two classmates were happy to return to school. ''Mostly,'' she said, ''we didn't do anything at all'' during the strike.

This strike, the sixth in 14 years, has come at an important time for the school system itself.

After annual enrollment losses of sometimes 15,000 to 20,000 during the 1970s , enrollments this year seem to have stabilized, says Ashraf Manji, coordinator in the facilities planning department of the Chicago school system. And they could start rising gradually as early as next year. Much of that change is demographic, but it also depends on the public's confidence in the system.

Mr. Harrington says his group is urging that the school board take a look at cost-cutting measures not directly related to student performance and start communicating more with the public and teachers to avert a showdown next year when the one-year contract comes to an end.

Then, he says, the public might be willing to increase its tax contribution to Chicago's troubled schools.

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