CHICAGO — Striking teachers marched across the city on Monday as some parents chafed at the disruption and school officials scrambled to find places for displaced students to spend their day.
About 26,000 teachers and support staff went on strike — the city's first since 1987 — after contract talks broke down late Sunday. The key issues: salaries and benefits, job security and teacher evaluation systems. Talks resumed Monday.
"I do believe that we are down to the last few issues," Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Monday at Maranatha Church, which is offering activities to students. "This is in my view a strike of choice and it's the wrong choice for our children."
The remaining issues, he said, are teacher evaluations and job security. "Stay at the table, finish it for our children," he said.
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."
Rob Heselton, a teacher at Jones College Prep for 12 years, said the important issues for him are "not as much salary" as class size, extra days and hours added to the school calendar this year and the way Emanuel handled those issues.
"It was just the fact that it was forced on us," he said. "I don't want to be out here at all, but it's definitely worth fighting for."
Average teacher pay is $76,000 a year. The school system has a $665 million budget deficit. Teachers voted in June to authorize a strike if a new agreement could not be reached.
Chicago Public Schools kept 144 schools open from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. for activities and meals, 59 churches that operate as havens were open to students. Parks and 76 public libraries offered activities. There are almost 400,000 students in the system.
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."
"This is a difficult decision and one we hoped we could have avoided," said Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. "We must do things differently in this city if we are to provide our students with the education they so rightfully deserve."
Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the strike could be "a pivotal point" in the shift toward introducing competition to public schools and making them "function more like private businesses."
If the teachers union here fails, he said, "then this movement simply continues and it's likely to get locked into place for a generation."
Emanuel said the district offered the teachers a 16% pay raise over four years, doubling an earlier offer.
The strike is a test for Emanuel, who said late Sunday it was "a strike of choice. … It's unnecessary, it's avoidable and it's wrong."
Some strikers outside Chicago Public Schools headquarters chanted, "Hey, hey, ho, ho. Rahm Emanuel has got to go."
Dick Simpson, head of the political science department at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said a long strike could undermine Emanuel's reputation as a leader who can get things done. He also noted that unions are a major source of support for Emanuel's Democratic Party.
"The unions aren't the only game in town, they're not as strong as they used to be," Simpson said, "but if the mayor isn't able to reasonably settle the strike … that will weaken him in that sector."
The Labor Department says 11.8% of the nation's wage and salary workers were union members in 2011, down from 20.1% in 1983.
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."
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.
Jeff Bell, 41, a commodities broker who has three children in Chicago schools, said he was disgusted with both sides of the dispute.
"Who's thinking about the kids?" he asked. "Mine are at home instead of being where they should be — in a classroom, learning. Fix this, get it resolved. Our kids are paying the price, and that's a real shame."
Ann Chase, 30, whose daughter is a first-grader, said she was torn. "I think our teachers should be paid more, but I don't think a strike is the best way for them to get their message out," she said.
"In this economy, everybody feels the crunch, but we all go to work every day if we're lucky enough to have a job," Chase said. "It mostly makes me sad that it had to come to this."