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(Reuters) - Chicago Teachers Union delegates will meet on Sunday to decide whether Mayor Rahm Emanuel has offered enough concessions in a new labor contract to end a week-long strike and resume classes in the nation's third-largest school district.
Negotiators met all day Saturday to put the finishing touches on a new contract for the 29,000 teachers, nurses and other support staff, and hope to have legal language to present to some 800 union delegates meeting at 3 p.m. local time (4 p.m. EDT) on Sunday.
Union President Karen Lewis said that if all goes well she will ask the delegates to vote to call off the strike against the school district, which began on September 10 and kept 350,000 students out of school.
"We believe this is a good contract, however, no contract will solve all of the inequities in our District," Lewis said in a statement posted on the union website late on Saturday.
The union cautioned that the delegates could decide to delay a decision while they consult with rank-and-file union members.
Thousands of teachers demonstrated in Chicago on Saturday to underscore their demand for a new contract.
The confrontation between the union and Emanuel has boosted the weakened U.S. labor movement and opened a rift within the U.S. Democratic Party.
Emanuel was quick to scotch speculation on Saturday that he retreated from some demands at the behest of the White House. Emanuel is a former top White House aide to President Barack Obama and a fundraiser for the president's reelection effort.
Democrats are heavily dependent on labor union support, especially in getting out the vote in the November 6 elections.
"There was no pressure, and no pressure would have worked, because they know that the mayor firmly believes that what we are doing to reform and improve our schools is the right thing," Emanuel's spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton said.
Emanuel compromised on the design of the first update of the evaluation system for Chicago teachers in 40 years. He agreed to phase in the new plan over several years and reduced the weighting of standardized test results in reviewing teachers.
The Chicago dispute has shone a bright light on a fierce national debate over how to reform failing inner-city schools. The union believes that more money and resources should be given to neighborhood public schools to help them improve.
Emanuel and a legion of financiers and philanthropists believe that failing schools should be closed and reopened with new staff and principals to give the students the best chance of improving academically.
In Chicago, more than 80 neighborhood schools have been closed in the last decade as the enrollment has declined by about 20 percent.
At the same time, 96 so-called charter schools have been opened. Charters are controversial because they are publicly funded but non-union and not subject to some public school rules and regulations. Their record of improving student academic performance is mixed, studies show.
Lewis and the union argue that charters are undermining public education.
"We work very hard," said Rhonda McLeod, a special education teacher at a neighborhood school on Chicago's South Side, and one of the delegates who will vote whether to end the strike on Sunday. "To say a teacher comes in and phones it in is the biggest lie I ever heard."
The agreement the union will vote on Sunday is expected to give the teachers a 16 percent wage rise over four years along with some benefit improvements.
The deal could put Emanuel in a difficult position as the Chicago Public Schools face a financial crisis. The district has drained all its financial reserves to cover an expected budget deficit over the next year and has levied the maximum property tax allowed by law.
Debt rating agencies have warned that the new agreement with teachers could bust the school district budget and lead to a downgrade of its credit rating.
Teachers also fear that once the strike is called off, Emanuel will announce the closing of scores of schools to save money to pay for the agreement with teachers and to make room for opening more charters.