CHICAGO: Thousands of teachers walked off the job Monday in Chicago, the third-largest U.S. school district, creating a tense political standoff for Mayor Rahm Emanuel just as the former chief aide to President Barack Obama takes on a larger role in his former boss's campaign.
In the latest flashpoint in a raging debate over public employee unions that have roiled politics in Ohio, Wisconsin and beyond, some 26,000 teachers and support staff were expected to join the picket after union leaders announced they were far from resolving a contract dispute with school district officials.
City officials acknowledged that children 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 strike in Obama's hometown quickly got caught up in election-year politics, as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said Chicago teachers were turning their backs on thousands of students and Obama was siding with the striking teachers.
Obama's top spokesman said the president has not taken sides but is urging both the teachers and the city to settle quickly.
The strike's timing seems inopportune for Emanuel, a former White House chief of staff whose city administration was already wrestling with a spike in murders and shootings in some city neighborhoods before he agreed to take a larger role in fundraising for Obama's re-election campaign.
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 U.S., and all sides are closely monitoring who might emerge with the upper hand in the Chicago dispute as Election Day looms in November.
Romney, who has been critical of public employee unions, said he was disappointed by the Chicago teachers' decision to walk out of negotiations and sides with parents and students over unionized teachers, in a statement released Monday hours before he was set to land in Chicago for fundraisers.
"Teachers unions have too often made plain that their interests conflict with those of our children, and today we are seeing one of the clearest examples yet," Romney said.
Emanuel, who said he would work to end the strike quickly, struck back at Romney's statement.
"While I appreciate his lip service, what really counts is what we are doing here," he told reporters. "I don't give two hoots about national comments scoring political points or trying to embarrass ... the president."
Obama political aides in Chicago also criticized Romney for seeking political advantage and pointed to Romney's repeated campaign statements that class sizes do not impact students' education.
"Playing political games with local disputes won't help educate our kids, nor will fewer teachers," campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama was monitoring the situation in his hometown but was not eager to take on a role in the dispute.
"We hope that both sides are able to come together to settle this quickly and in the best interests of Chicago's students," Carney told reporters.
Contract negotiations between Chicago Public School officials and union leaders that stretched through the weekend were resuming Monday.
Some 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.
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.
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 percent 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.
Obama has urged accountability in teachers - moves that union leaders have opposed. For instance, Obama's administration has favored pilot programs that challenge current practices, rewarding schools who try new approaches and has pushed for longer school days.
Obama's education secretary, Arne Duncan, is a former head of Chicago Public Schools who pushed for changes that unions opposed.