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updated: 11/9/2012 2:52 PM

District 94 facing tough contract talks with 2 unions

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Tensions are mounting in West Chicago High School District 94 where tough contract battles are taking shape between the school board and unions representing both support staff and teachers.

A federal mediator already has been called to assist in talks between the board and the Support Staff Association that began in February and ground to a halt in September over issues related to pay and health insurance.

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But even before the mediator's arrival, the association and teachers union this week announced formation of a "joint crisis committee" to address their concerns in current and coming contract negotiations.

The committee plans to launch a grass-roots effort this weekend to make residents aware of the talks, teachers union spokeswoman Kristina Mallon said Thursday. Members of both unions will distribute fliers and place signs in yards and windows with a simple message: Support Our Schools, Support Our Staff.

The teachers union approved a three-year contract in February that provides 1 percent raises in each of the first two years -- there are no so-called step increases -- but left room to reopen talks about compensation for the third year of the agreement.

The teachers and school board expect to begin meeting in January to discuss salaries, insurance benefits, retirement benefits, stipends for tasks such as coaching and overseeing extracurricular activities, tuition reimbursement and pay for extra duty, such as cafeteria supervision.

With those negotiations looming, the school board and support staff union are scheduled to meet with the federal mediator for the first time on Nov. 26.

The Support Staff Association represents 77 custodians, maintenance workers, personal care and program assistants, deans' assistants, administrative assistants and clerks who have been working under the terms of their old contract since June 30.

The two sides have met 14 times since February, exchanging six contract proposals. They have reached agreement on virtually everything but salaries and benefits, school board spokesman Tony Molinaro said Thursday. The school board submitted its latest proposal on Sept. 10 and the two sides last were at the bargaining table Sept. 27.

The association submitted its request for federal mediation on Oct. 24.

"We're trying to give them reasonable raises that are comparable to what they would be paid for their jobs outside the school system," Molinaro said, "but raises that also are reasonable for our taxpayers."

Additionally, he said, the school board is looking to reduce health insurance costs for both the district and support staff members.

District officials said members of the support staff have received raises totaling more than 25 percent in the past four years. They received a raise of 6.2 percent in 2008-09, 6.3 percent in 2009-10, 6.4 percent in 2010-11 and 6.5 percent in 2011-12.

All those raises far outpaced the rate of inflation, officials said.

The average annual pay for all support staff members is $39,746, according to district records. Salaries range from $20,042 for the lowest paid special education program assistant to $86,736 for the highest paid maintenance worker.

Monica Piszczek, spokeswoman for the support staff, could not immediately be reached for comment.

In a written statement, however, she said both the support staff and teachers union have experienced "unprecedented turnover, partly due to wages and salaries being considerably lower than many area districts."

She said low wages and increasingly limited insurance benefits are making it difficult to hire and retain staff.

"The board of education seems indifferent to the revolving door atmosphere that develops when employees come and go," she said. "To this point, the board of education has only made proposals that would leave our members losing income."

Molinaro would not discuss details of the support staff talks, other than to say the board is seeking a three- or four-year pact. But district officials said attrition rates on the support staff have risen from 3.9 percent for the 2009-10 school year to 8.8 percent for the 2011-12 school year.

Molinaro confirmed the board's latest proposal called for smaller raises than in recent years. "We've made what we think are fair offers to the support staff while trying to deal with the realities of the economy," he said. "I'm confident we can get something done."

Union leaders, however, are less certain.

"Both the teachers and the support staff have absorbed cuts in the last several years," teachers union spokeswoman Mallon said in a written statement. "Both groups have given back in pay and benefits in recent contracts. We've made substantial sacrifices to help support the district in tough times. Every time we make a sacrifice, though, the board comes back looking for more."

The average salary for District 94 teachers is $67,987, according to district records. The lowest is $45,093; the highest is $124,789.

The union represents 139 teachers and librarians.

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