By Mary Wisniewski
(Reuters) - Chicago public school teachers, negotiating a new contract amid severe statewide budget troubles, plan to take a practice strike vote on Thursday to prepare for a possible walk-out in response to budget cuts, a union official said.
The purpose of the vote in the nation's third-largest city is to test both the process of collecting the vote and teacher sentiment as negotiations with school officials continue, said Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union.
"We've told people to be prepared for a long strike if that's what it comes to," Sharkey said. "We'd prefer there be no strike at all."
The district, which serves about 400,000 students at more than 600 schools, faces a $1.1 billion structural deficit.
Its former chief executive, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, pleaded guilty last month to a fraud charge related to the awarding of a no-bid contract to her former employer, infuriating parents and teachers who had already seen budget cutbacks.
The Chicago Public Schools' recently approved $5.7 billion budget counts on $480 million in aid from the state of Illinois it has not received. If the money does not come, thousands of teachers could be laid off after Christmas.
Due to an impasse between the state's Democratic-majority legislature and new Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, the state has no budget.
"This isn't just about a small group of workers, it's about whether or not our society wants to commit to public education," Sharkey said.
Sharkey said it is too early to speculate when and if teachers could strike - but they need to be prepared. State law requires approval by at least 75 percent of teachers.
Sharkey said the union would likely announce the results of the practice vote after the weekend.
The last strike was in 2012 - the district's first in 25 years.
(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski, editing by David Alexander)