by Judy Keen, USA TODAY
CHICAGO -- Hundreds of striking teachers marched in downtown Chicago on Monday chanting and carrying signs after walking off the job in a contract dispute with school district officials.
"We need teachers, we need books!" teachers chanted as commuters in cars driving by honked their horns in support. One man walked by with a thumbs down gesture saying, "Think of the kids."
Some 26,000 teachers and support staff from the third-largest U.S. school district are expected to join the picket after union leaders announced they were far from resolving a contract dispute.
Susan Hickey, a school social worker for 18 years who is on the bargaining team, said health benefits and restoring laid-off teachers are among the issues.
"Chicago is a union town," she said. "The assault on unions has been horrible."
Brandon Johnson, a middle-school social studies and reading teacher for six years, said the city and mayor "want education on the cheap."
"For far too long we've been disrespected and belittled," he said. "There's no protection for teachers."
City officials acknowledged that children who are left unsupervised -- especially in neighborhoods with a history of gang violence -- might be at risk, but vowed to protect the nearly 400,000 students' safety.
The walkout posed a tricky test for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who said he would work to end the strike quickly.
"This is not a strike I wanted," Emanuel said Sunday night, not long after the union announced the action. "It was a strike of choice. ... It's unnecessary, it's avoidable and it's wrong."
Contract negotiations between Chicago public school officials and union leaders that stretched through the weekend were resuming Monday.
Among teachers protesting Monday morning was Frank Menzies, a teacher for 15 years at Jones College Prep, a magnet high school south of downtown.
"Equity, fair labor practices and dignity," are what's at stake, he said. Menzies calls teachers "literally first responders" who need good working conditions to help kids. "Money is not a big deal," he said.
Karen Stolzenberg, an art teacher for 25 years, said her classes average 32 students, making it "hard to build a relationship with students on a daily basis.
She would rather be in the classroom than on the picket line.
"Oh my gosh. None of us wanted this," she said. "I want to be in the classroom but this is important."
Officials said about 140 schools would be open between 8:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. so the children who rely on free meals provided by the school district can eat breakfast and lunch, school district officials said.
"We will make sure our kids are safe, we will see our way through these issues and our kids will be back in the classroom where they belong," Emanuel said.
The school district asked community organizations to provide additional programs for students, and a number of churches, libraries and other groups plan to offer day camps and other activities.
Police Chief Garry McCarthy said he would take officers off desk duty and deploy them to deal with any teachers' protests as well as the thousands of students who could be roaming the streets.
Union leaders and district officials were not far apart in their negotiations on compensation, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said. But other issues -- including potential changes to health benefits and a new teacher evaluation system based partly on students' standardized test scores -- remained unresolved, she said.
"This is a difficult decision and one we hoped we could have avoided," Lewis said. "We must do things differently in this city if we are to provide our students with the education they so rightfully deserve."
Emanuel and the union officials have much at stake. Unions and collective bargaining by public employees have recently come under criticism in many parts of the country, and all sides are closely monitoring who might emerge with the upper hand in the Chicago dispute.
The timing also may be inopportune for Emanuel, a former White House chief of staff whose city administration is wrestling with a spike in murders and shootings in some city neighborhoods and who just agreed to take a larger role in fundraising for President Obama's re-election campaign.
Parents are worried about how much their children's education might suffer and where their kids will go while they're at work.
Emily Lee, 31, a mother of two public school students, had a message for striking teachers: "Get back to work. The city is broke, children are getting murdered in the streets and education is the answer."
The school board was offering a fair and responsible contract that would most of the union's demands after "extraordinarily difficult" talks, board President David Vitale said. Emanuel said the district offered the teachers a 16% pay raise over four years, doubling an earlier offer.
Lewis said among the issues of concern was a new evaluation that she said would be unfair to teachers because it relied too heavily on students' standardized test scores and does not take into account external factors that affect performance, including poverty, violence and homelessness.
She said the evaluations could result in 6,000 teachers losing their jobs within two years. City officials disagreed and said the union has not explained how it reached that conclusion.
Emanuel said the evaluation would not count in the first year, as teachers and administrators worked out any kinks. Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said the evaluation "was not developed to be a hammer," but to help teachers improve.
The strike is the latest flashpoint in a very public and often contentious battle between the mayor and the union.
The district and union agreed in July on how to implement a longer school day, striking a deal to hire back 477 teachers who had been laid off rather than pay regular teachers more to work longer hours. That raised hopes the contract dispute would be settled soon, but bargaining continued on the other issues.
Contributing: Associated Press