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posted: 10/12/2012 6:26 PM

District 300 teachers to take strike vote Sunday

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Teachers in Community Unit District 300 will vote Sunday on whether to go on strike.

Kolleen Hanetho, president of the district's teachers union, LEAD 300, said union leaders will meet with teachers at 1:30 p.m. in the field house of Dundee-Crown High School to bring them up to speed before taking a vote. Teachers are working under the conditions of a one-year agreement that expired June 30.

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"We will be asking them for direction," Hanetho said.

It has been 40 years since teachers in District 300 last went on strike. The vote Sunday will allow the union to file a 10-day intent to strike notice once an impasse is declared. Teachers must still wait 28 days after an impasse is reached and both sides have filed their best and last contract offers with the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board before going on strike.

The union and district leaders called in a mediator to assist in contract negotiations before returning to face-to-face meetings this month, Hanetho said. But the district negotiating team declined to meet with the union on Tuesday, Hanetho said, instead communicating through the mediator.

"That unto itself sent a pretty clear message," Hanetho said. "No one wants to strike, and I understand the need to bargain in good faith. But if what it takes is to go out on strike or a strike vote for them to listen, then that's what we have to do. We are fighting for appropriate class sizes and an appropriate academic environment for children, and we are not seeing that."

When contacted by the Daily Herald Friday, school board spokesman Joe Stevens said he was unaware of the union's decision to take a vote.

"I have been watching what's happening in all the school districts that are going through negotiations right now and they all seem to be going that way," Stevens said. "I didn't know. We are making progress slowly but surely, and the mediator is keeping us on track. There has to be movement on both sides. We have a lot of things to work through."

In a statement made during Wednesday night's board of education meeting, school board President Anne Miller said the district aims to reach an agreement that brings long-term fixes without long-term debt.

"We are hoping to avoid cuts in staff or programs. We would like to keep all of our schools open," Miller said. "We are hoping that at the end of our contract we are on sound financial ground with a strong faculty that will enable us to continue to reduce class size, improve student performance and increase programs rather than needing to make cuts in order to get out of debt -- again -- a contract that is fair and equitable as well as one that provides longevity and stability."

Hanetho, who described the statement as threatening, said the district has reached a tipping point of being financially sound and providing the best quality education to students.

"We have been putting in $4 million in the bank the last two years to have a three-month cushion," Hanetho said. "We would all love to have that. I would love to have that but not at the expense of not feeding my child today. Our class sizes are detrimentally impacting children, today's children. We are putting $4 million in the bank but leaving children without an education."

Stevens argued the savings are not excess cash, but part of the district's operating fund that covers expenses, including salaries. Though a 2002 referendum pumped $35 million into the operating fund reserves to improve cash flow, Stevens said the district still needs to borrow millions of dollars in April to meet payroll. If the district dips too far into the cash reserves, it would violate the bond issuance agreement.

Still, Hanetho said, class size, especially those at the elementary level where more than 35 students is common, is impeding teachers' abilities to adequately teach. Additionally, Hanetho said District 300 teachers are among the lowest paid compared to surrounding districts.

"What we are asking for is for them to put into our contract what limits there are on classroom sizes so we can make a clear promise to parents, and (the board) is not willing to do that," Hanetho said. "It is time to promise our children today that they are going to have a quality education. They are making it impossible for us to do our craft."

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