For Chicago's 430,000 public school students, Christmas vacation could come as early as this weekend. Teachers and school administrators have failed to agree on a contract for this year. If the dispute isn't resolved, the teachers say they will strike next Monday.
The scenario is all too familiar to Chicagoans. In this city, the threat of a school strike is almost as regular as the school bell. But this year, some observers are encouraged. They see signs that 1984 could be different from previous impasses.
''I'm not sure it is a replay of the same old patterns,'' says Fred Hess, executive director of the Chicago Panel on Public School Finances. ''This year I don't think there's intractability.''
The union's new president, Jacqueline Vaughn, has been more moderate and reasonable than her predecessor, he says. And the board, in private, has shown a willingness to shift around what money it has.
''I think both sides understand the problem,'' adds Gwendolyn Laroche, director of the education department of the Chicago Urban League.
That is a marked change from the past, when union and school board would often fight to an impasse until the mayor would step in and come up with more money for teachers. Mayor Harold Washington so far has indicated he will stay out of the dispute.
Still, this year's problem appears tough to resolve.
''When we look at it, it simply seems to be a matter of shrinking buying power of (existing) resources,'' Dr. Laroche says. ''We think that there isn't enough money allocated to education.''
The teachers have received either small pay increases or none at all for the past several years. This year they are calling for a modest increase.
But, Laroche says, every 1 percent hike in teachers' pay and other employees raises the school budget $8 million. And the school board doesn't have it, she says.
The school board maintains it will have to, in effect, cut teachers pay to balance its budget. It plans on doing this in two major ways: shift more of the financial burden of teachers' medical insurance onto the teachers themselves, and reduce the number of required school days.
Outside money - which would ease this money crunch - has not been easy to come by.
Earlier this year, a judge ordered the federal government to pay the schools an extra $29 million - the first installment of a settlement of a federal desegregation suit against Chicago schools. But the ruling was later overturned by a federal appeals court.
Currently, both the teachers union and school board hope to convince the state to allocate more money to Chicago schools. But neither the governor nor a majority of lawmakers appear disposed to give substantial funds, observers say.
Supporters of increased state aid concede they face difficulties in getting it passed. And any new money won't come close to making up the projected $40 million deficit, they say.
''There is no support for public education in this city among a great number of public officials,'' Mr. Hess says. Nevertheless, he remains optimistic that the two sides can resolve their differences.