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posted: 12/4/2012 10:21 PM

West Chicago schools among many dealing with labor discord

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A West Chicago elementary school district's declaration that contract talks have stalled underscores the labor unrest that has been prevalent in teacher negotiations in the suburbs this fall.

District 33 teachers said Tuesday they plan to makes their voices heard at the next school board meeting, then march through downtown West Chicago. This follows an announcement by the school board Monday night that teachers and administrators were at an impasse after 14 months of negotiations.

The board's declaration effectively sets a one-week deadline for each side to submit their final offers to the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, which would then wait another seven days before making the proposals public on its website, www2.illinois.gov/elrb.

While a strike vote in West Chicago is not yet being discussed, the suburbs have been rife with threatened or actual teacher strikes. At least eight teachers unions in the state filed intent-to-strike notices. Six resulted in teachers walking out, mostly in the suburbs, and most recently in Carpentersville-based District 300 on Tuesday -- though that district's teachers are returning to work Wednesday after a deal was reached Tuesday night.

The longest strike, nine days, occurred in Evergreen Park, followed by Chicago Public Schools, where teachers were off the job for seven days. One-day strikes took place in the Crystal Lake and Highland Park school systems, in addition now to District 300. Meanwhile, strike notices have been filed and talks continue in Barrington Unit District 220 and Grayslake Elementary District 46.

Workplace observers have suggested teachers were reluctant to make much noise about contracts after the latest recession. But after four years of austerity, school leaders may be seeing pent-up frustration among teachers, while school boards are determined to hold the line on expenses.

In West Chicago, the two sides have been unable to reach agreement on salaries, retirement plans and insurance benefits. Also still on the table are issues involving class sizes, teacher workloads and the length of teachers' work days. Both sides asked for a federal mediator to enter the talks in September and have met a handful of times since, most recently on Nov. 28 and then again Monday.

Mary Catherine Kosmach, the union's chief negotiator, stressed Tuesday the board acted alone in declaring the impasse Monday night. She said the board approached the union with three major bargaining items that day and "we moved on two of them, but they would not move on the third."

She said she would not discuss details of the talks until the first meeting with her membership Wednesday, and possibly not even then.

School board President Christine Scheck said the board is "open to continue talking with the teachers union to explore options," but no additional talks have been scheduled.

Scheck said the board elected to declare an impasse because "we felt we couldn't go any further in negotiations. ... We felt we made a fair offer based on our revenues."

In a written statement, Scheck said "the challenges we are confronting have nothing to do with how much we value our teachers. It has everything to do with what we can afford."

Scheck said the district is "facing serious economic difficulties, driven by the serious budget problems that the State of Illinois is encountering. We have already made substantial program cuts. We have reduced administrative personnel and negotiated concessions with other bargaining units. We are committed to an agreement that is good for students, fair to teachers and fiscally responsible to the community."

Kosmach, meanwhile, said the union is "extremely disappointed" by the board's decision, which she called an "unnecessary action that will only further divide us and make it even harder to reach a fair agreement."

She said the union has offered "economic concessions that would guarantee significant long-term savings for the district in salary and retirement costs. Instead, she said, the board has rejected those offers and continues to make essentially the same radical demands it started with.

"We are very frustrated by a school board that is insisting on harsh and unnecessary take-aways on insurance, retirement and salary -- cuts which are way too deep and divisive."

She declined to discuss the possibility of any job action.

"Our teachers are working at 100 percent effort," she said. "We're doing everything we're supposed to be doing and will continue to do so until we get a contract."

The most recent pact for the district's 284 teachers, a four-year contract, expired Aug. 30. Negotiators for both sides said they were far apart in September when they called for a mediator and there has been little progress since.

District 33 serves roughly 4,000 students at six elementary schools, one middle school and a preschool that meets at two locations.

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