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Chicago sidesteps strike: How to rebuild trust between teachers and the city?

Union leaders in Chicago and the school district reached a tentative contract agreement minutes before the deadline on Tuesday, after they couldn't come together for months over a lack of trust. 

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Retired Chicago school teacher Patricia Lofton counts through a stack of picket sign for Chicago Teachers Union members to pick up on Oct. 10, 2016, Chicago. The union and the Chicago Board of Education reached a tentative agreement minutes before midnight on Monday.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

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The Chicago Teachers Union and the nation’s third largest school district reached a contract agreement minutes before midnight Tuesday to avoid the second major strike there in four years.

Chicago Public Schools and the union came to a tentative agreement on points of conflict that include class sizes, teacher layoffs, and special education. The school district has also agreed to continue to pay most of most of its contribution to teachers' pensions, the so-called pension pickup. About 28,000 teachers have been without a contract since June 2015.

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Karen Lewis, the union president, acknowledged in a news conference streamed on Facebook just after midnight that the agreement isn’t perfect. But it could serve as a gateway to rebuilding trust between the city, its teachers, and Chicagoans.

“The teachers’ hard work will be respected in this contract, and appropriately rewarded,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a separate news conference in the early Tuesday hours, according to the Chicago Tribune. “Chicago Public Schools’ finances will be strong and on firmer ground because of this agreement. Parents and taxpayers will be relieved, and more importantly, reassured, that we all came together to work together with a common purpose.”

The agreement must be ratified by the Chicago Teachers Union’s House of Delegates and voted on by the full membership. The approval process could take weeks.

The four-year contract includes a commitment from the Chicago Board of Education on kindergarten through second-grade class sizes, and on teacher layoffs and recalls, Ms. Lewis told the Tribune. The contract would require the district to provide a teaching assistant in all kindergarten through second-grade classes with 32 students or more, according to the proposed agreement provided by The Washington Post. The district announced in August its plans to lay off 500 teachers and 500 school-based workers, according to the Tribune.

In a win for the union, the district will also continue to fund the bulk of teachers' pensions. It’s been a long-standing practice for Chicago Public Schools to contribute the equivalent of 7 percent of teachers' salaries to pensions. Teachers are expected to contribute 2 percent of their salaries. But the district planned to phase out this practice because the pension system had tripled in recent years, growing to $10 billion in liabilities.

The cash-strapped school system previously said it could no longer afford the pension pickup and instead proposed an 8.75 percent base salary raise over four years.

In the tentative agreement, the city has agreed to the union’s request to use half of $175 million in surplus from tax-increment finance districts to continue the practice for all teachers hired before Dec. 31, 2016, three sources told the Tribune. Anyone hired after this date will instead receive a salary adjustment.

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The agreement union leaders and the district reached after 12 hours of negotiations Monday ends more than a yearlong dispute to replace a contract reached after a seven-day strike in 2012. The impasse started when the district said it would not offer a one-year extension on the contract because it could not afford a built-in, 3 percent pay increase. The union then revealed the district was interested in phasing out the pension system. The union also demanded $200 million for students, which it said could come from the 146 tax-increment finance districts in the city. The Emanuel administration said the revenue from these districts is unreliable.

When the union’s 40-member bargaining team rejected a previous agreement union leaders and the district reached in January, Lewis told reporters “the real problem is a lack of trust.”

The Emanuel administration has faced similar criticism from Chicagoans. In addition to the city’s money woes, Chicago has seen an uptick in violence. Mr. Emanuel and Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson are trying to reform the Chicago Police Department’s policing practices in the wake of shootings of young black men.

A deal with the teachers’ union could go a long way with Chicagoans, as Tribune polls about who residents side with show.

In February, a Tribune poll found 60 percent of voters said they backed the union, while just 20 percent backed Emanuel, with 12 percent saying neither and 7 percent having no opinion.

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.