SPRINGFIELD — The Chicago teachers strike comes as teachers across the area are feeling the salary pinch from cash-strapped local school boards as well as the threat of benefit cuts as state lawmakers seek ways to save money.
And it comes despite a state law approved last year that was intended to help make strikes more rare. But even some of the authors of those strike-prevention provisions say teachers’ frustration over pay and benefits could make contract negotiations rockier in many areas in the coming years.
“It’s making the threat of strike a much more real threat across the state,” said Jessica Handy, Illinois policy director of Stand For Children.
Handy’s group helped author a new state law that, among other things, requires school districts and union leaders to post their final offers online weeks before going on strike, a move intended to keep everyone honest in public and to draw out the negotiating time in hopes of staving off a strike. Late last year, Cary District 26 avoided a strike after terms were posted online.
Chicago schools, in the law, were put on even longer timetables.
In the suburbs, relations between teachers and management have been quiet in recent years. That’s because teachers acknowledge school boards are often in a tough spot financially and they’re trying to do their part to help, said Illinois Federation of Teachers spokesman Dave Comerford.
“Teachers do take a look at the financial situation,” he said.
Comerford says teachers’ concern now is that financially stable school districts will use the economy as an excuse to keep raises low.
Average teacher raises have been flattening since the recession began, according the Illinois State Board of Education. In the 2004-05 school year, the median salary increase for a lowest-level teacher was 3.4 percent over the year before. In the 2011-12 school year, the median raise was 1.4 percent.
Illinois Association of School Boards President Roger Eddy said that when money is tight, teachers and school boards can often get hung up on other issues. The Chicago strike is reportedly less about salaries and more about how standardized test scores affect a teacher’s evaluation.
In fact, Eddy said, what Chicago decides on the evaluation issue could be brought up in negotiations outside the city in the future.
“What one district does might be used as a comparison by management or associations in the future,” Eddy said.
All sides caution, though, that every school district’s contract negotiations are different. Contract talks that devolve into strikes can sometimes be the result of bad blood between teachers and management that has bubbled for years, not the result of a simpler impasse over contract language.
Though state lawmakers have yet to agree on ways to save money by cutting public employee pensions, the issue already has played into teacher contract negotiations.
Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 earlier this year adopted a contract that specifies negotiations could be reopened if the state asks the district to pay more toward teachers’ pension costs.
“This topic was clearly in the discussion, there’s no doubt about it,” said District 200 Superintendent Brian Harris.
Harris said he, like other suburban educators, is watching the Chicago strike to see if any of the outcomes will eventually ripple outside of Chicago.
“It’s just going to be interesting to watch,” Harris said. “Maybe nothing. I don’t know.”Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.