The bitter contract dispute between the West Chicago Elementary District 33 school board and its teachers union is beginning to cause divisions in the community, too, as parents and others begin choosing sides.
With the threat of a strike looming as soon as Jan. 7 when classes are scheduled to resume after winter break, more than 100 residents and teachers attended a town-hall meeting Wednesday to hear officials outline the district's final contract offer.
Many teachers attending the session wore shirts that said "We are one" and necklaces saying "Compromise."
The two sides have been at the bargaining table for nearly 15 months without reaching agreement on key issues such as salary and benefits along with concerns over class sizes and teacher workdays. The school board earlier this month declared an impasse in the talks and the teachers union filed an intent to strike notice.
Both sides' final offers were published on the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board website early this week.
School board member Dave Barclay said the difference in cost to the district between the two offers is roughly $3.5 million over the life of the proposed three-year contract.
Audience members submitted anonymous questions after Barclay's presentation. Many praised teachers and questioned a health care payment cap the school board proposed for teachers that would not apply to administrators and custodians.
Others were upset the school board is offering teachers guaranteed raises while many in the private sector have seen their pay cut, frozen or both.
Many residents called for a compromise to keep teachers working and students in school.
"It's integral that the two groups come together because it's not about you guys, it's really not," said resident Mary Griffith, who has two children who went through District 33. "It's about these kids. They need to know that you have their backs."
Nevertheless, the two sides remain far apart on many issues, including so-called step raises for teachers who have spent 12 or fewer years in the district.
In its final offer, the school board seeks to extend the current step increase schedule from 12 to 23 years, reducing the amount of automatic pay increases from 4.5 percent to 2.25 percent for each of the next three years.
The board also proposes a .75 percent increase to the base salary in each of the next three years for teachers on the schedule -- representing a total 3 percent annual raise for each year of the pact.
Additionally, the board is offering a new longevity increase for veteran teachers off the salary schedule, with a 2 percent raise this year, and a 1 percent raise in each of the following two years. Nearly half the District 33 teachers are veterans who have been with the district longer than 12 years.
The union, meanwhile, is offering to expand the step schedule to 18 years and reduce the automatic pay increases to an average of 3.6 percent a year. The union also proposes a 1.25 percent increase to base salaries in each of the next three years for all teachers.
As a result, roughly half the district's teachers would receive 4.85 percent annual raises.
Health care also remains a major sticking point, with the district seeking to cap the amount it will pay for its share of employee insurance premiums. The teachers oppose such a cap.
The district currently pays 80 percent of premiums for single or family coverage with no cap. The most expensive plan District 33 offers is a Blue Cross Blue Shield PPO that costs the district $15,000 per employee, and Barclay said most employees opt for it.
Due to District 33's contract with its teachers, the board cannot change any parameters of its health care offerings, including raising co-pays or changing carriers, without negotiating.
Now, the board is offering to pay 80 percent of the premium up to $12,500 this year; $12,875 next school year; and $13,261 in 2014-15.
Chief union negotiator Mary Catherine Kosmach, a fifth-grade teacher who has been with the district since 1979, said premium costs already are slated to go up 6 percent and the union estimates the cap will create roughly $300 more in monthly insurance payments for an average teacher.
Other unresolved issues include class sizes, teacher workloads and the length of teacher work days.
Both sides have said they are willing to return to the bargaining table. Barclay said the school board has suggested six meeting dates during the district's holiday break, but union officials said they do not want to meet until after Jan. 1.
Kosmach said that's because school board President Christine Scheck is traveling for the holidays and cannot meet, and Kosmach must be fair to her union officials, too, who also are traveling to see family.
Barclay said District 33 faces a projected deficit of more than $3 million due primarily to the state's fiscal crisis and declining property tax revenues.
The district has cut programs over the past three years but still faces ongoing deficits that have consumed its reserves, officials said.
Barclay said raising taxes on one of the poorest districts in DuPage County is not an option.
Kosmach said the school board is not showing a willingness to compromise and is making proposals that undervalue its 284 teachers.
The district serves roughly 4,000 students at six elementary schools, one middle school and a preschool that meets at two locations.