CHICAGO — As teachers in the Chicago public school system, the nation’s third-largest, edged closer to a strike on Wednesday, officials said they would cancel Thursday classes for about 300,000 students across the city.
The growing prospect of a strike threatened to upend life in the city, as parents raced to make arrangements for child care and city officials began to activate a contingency plan for supervising and feeding students in school buildings.
A strike in Chicago would be the latest in a string of more than a dozen major walkouts by teachers across the country since early last year.
The city and a union representing more than 20,000 educators have been in tense contract negotiations for months, but the talks had not produced a deal as a strike deadline of midnight Wednesday approached.
Questions about the size of classes and about staffing levels for school nurses, social workers, librarians and counselors were at the center of the impasse, officials on both sides said, though representatives for the city and the union disputed some details of what had been offered so far.
The standoff represents one of the first significant challenges for Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who took office earlier this year with an overwhelming electoral victory in all 50 of the city’s wards. She ran for mayor promising to undo inequities that have left parts of Chicago behind, including mostly African-American neighborhoods on the city’s South and West Sides where some schools had been shuttered. Chicago Public Schools records show that about 47 percent of the system’s students are Hispanic, 37 percent are African-Americans and 10 percent are non-Hispanic whites; some 76 percent are economically disadvantaged.
Ms. Lightfoot voiced frustration on Wednesday over the growing likelihood of a strike, suggesting that she concurs with much of what the teachers want, including more nurses in schools, more help for homeless students and smaller class sizes, especially at high-poverty schools. During her campaign for mayor, Ms. Lightfoot called for putting full-time nurses, social workers and librarians in all city schools, and promised to expand counseling services, recruit more black and Hispanic teachers and increase after-school programs.
The mayor said on Wednesday that the city had offered the teachers pay raises totaling 16 percent over a five-year contract, while union leaders have called for the raises over a shorter, three-year period.
“At every turn, we’ve bent over backwards to meet the union’s needs and deliver a contract that reflects our shared values and vision for our schools and the support of our students,” Ms. Lightfoot told reporters at City Hall Wednesday morning. “Folks, I’m the daughter of a union steelworker. I’m a strong believer in the power of collective bargaining, and yes, when it comes down to it, the right to strike. But today, we’re making concerted progress. It is clear that this is not one of those moments.”
As officials prepared for further negotiations on Wednesday, Stacy Davis Gates, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said that the city had failed to offer more than the status quo on some essential issues. She also suggested that Ms. Lightfoot’s image would depend on how the contract dispute is resolved.
“Our children deserve the best that this city has to offer,” Ms. Davis Gates said. “They do not deserve broken promises. Our South Side communities, our West Side communities are littered with broken promises, unkept commitments. This contract has to represent something different for the city of Chicago — it has got to represent something different. And she ran to do that. Period.”
Chicago was the birthplace of unionization among teachers in the late 19th century, and the city has often been a hotbed of teacher activism. The Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike in 2012, when it clashed with Rahm Emanuel, Ms. Lightfoot’s predecessor as mayor. In December 2018, Chicago was the site of the first teacher strike at a charter school network.
The Chicago public school system, with an annual budget of $5.98 billion, has long faced fiscal struggles, including high unfunded pension liabilities. In recent years, major credit agencies have rated the school system’s bonds below investment grade. But its financial outlook has stabilized somewhat, in part because of increased state aid.
Dana Goldstein contributed reporting from New York.