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updated: 1/5/2012 5:26 PM

Zion-Benton teachers go on strike, schools closed

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  • English teacher Elise Womack, left, and reading specialist Jeff Burd picket in front of Zion-Benton Township High School as employees went on strike after contract talks broke down early Thursday.

       English teacher Elise Womack, left, and reading specialist Jeff Burd picket in front of Zion-Benton Township High School as employees went on strike after contract talks broke down early Thursday.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Zion-Benton Township High School teachers picket in front of the high school after negotiations with District 126 broke down early Thursday morning.

       Zion-Benton Township High School teachers picket in front of the high school after negotiations with District 126 broke down early Thursday morning.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Zion-Benton Township High School social worker Jonathan Mahoney acknowledges honking motorists as employees picket in front of the high school Thursday.

       Zion-Benton Township High School social worker Jonathan Mahoney acknowledges honking motorists as employees picket in front of the high school Thursday.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Video: District 126 strikers

 
 

Nearly 300 Zion-Benton Township High School District employees, including teachers, walked picket lines Thursday after contract talks with district officials broke down overnight.

About 2,800 high school students from Wadsworth, Winthrop Harbor, Zion, Beach Park and unincorporated Lake County did not have classes after administrators closed the campuses at Zion-Benton Township High School and New Tech High School.

A short statement on the District 126 website at zbths.org said the two sides "met until 3:30 a.m. making progress on monetary issues; however, a final agreement has not yet been reached."

It added "The union decided to move forward with its strike effective immediately while negotiations continue. As a result of this decision, all district campuses will be closed."

The website also said the Parent Bee Network meeting, athletics, and all extra curricular activities were canceled until further notice. That included a Thursday night girls basketball game at Stevenson High School and a home boys swim meet against Warren Township High School, as well as a Friday night wrestling meet at Warren and a home boys basketball game against Warren.

Tony Ficarelli, attorney for District 126, said significant forward progress was made between the union and the board overnight, but not enough to avert the strike.

"We worked diligently -- over 13 hours -- (Wednesday night into Thursday morning) to try and agree on a contract, but we couldn't reach a tentative agreement," he said. "Union officials told their membership that if a tentative agreement was not in place Wednesday night, they would strike. And, while there was a valid attempt made to get a contract approved by both sides, they were not willing to defer the strike."

Michelle Standridge, field service director from the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said the two sides remain far apart on salary increase schedules and insurance cost sharing.

She said the district wants to double the number of years it takes teachers to reach certain salary adjustments. For example, under the board proposal, it would take a teacher 20 years to make what a teacher in their 10th year is now making, Standridge said.

"There was some productive discussions last night and we are hopeful that will continue," she said. "Our ultimate goal is to get the kids back in school and ratify a contract, but there are some hurdles that need to be overcome."

Late Thursday, Standridge said she expected contract talks to resume Friday.

She said Zion-Benton teachers have been renegotiating their contract since April and working without a contract since June.

She said the Zion-Benton board declared an impasse on Oct. 31 and walked out of negotiations, prompting the union to issue a strike authorization Nov. 1.

She said it took district officials almost a month to return to the negotiation table.

"We have given ample notice for the strike, and we have all along indicated to the board that we are willing to move in negotiation," she said. "We are committed toward working out a resolution."

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