Both sides in a contract dispute between West Chicago Elementary District 33 and its teachers union say they hope to reach an agreement to avoid a strike, despite two days of negotiations without progress on the issue of health care.
School will resume Monday as scheduled after winter break. Representatives of the school board and the teachers union said Saturday they would like to see 16 months of bitter contract talks resolved during a bargaining session scheduled for 5 p.m. Wednesday.
Agreeing to a contract then would prevent the union from drawing together its 284 members to take a strike vote, said chief union negotiator Mary Catherine Kosmach.
"What we're hoping for is a settlement on Wednesday," Kosmach said.
School board secretary Dave Barclay said the district also hopes to avoid a strike, but the cost of the final offers made by each side are still $3.5 million apart over the length of the proposed three-year contract. The sides also have yet to agree on key issues including salaries, class sizes and teacher workdays.
In eight hours of negotiations on Thursday and Friday, "we really weren't able to close the gap financially between the two offers," Barclay said.
The most recent negotiations focused on health insurance, but neither side budged from its stance. The district seeks to cap the amount it pays for its share of employee insurance premiums, but teachers oppose such a cap.
The district currently pays 80 percent of premiums for single or family coverage without a cap. Barclay said most employees opt for the district's most expensive plan -- a Blue Cross Blue Shield PPO that costs District 33 $15,000 per employee.
The board has not changed its offer to pay 80 percent of the premium up to $12,500 this year, $12,875 next school year, and $13,261 in 2014-15.
Kosmach said the union estimates the proposed cap would create roughly $300 more in monthly insurance payments for an average teacher.
"We're trying to find a creative way to make concessions in the insurance area," Kosmach said. "At this point, we're trying. We're trying to come up with a fair agreement."
Both the union and the school board released statements following the close of Friday's negotiations, saying they will meet again Wednesday. School board President Chris Scheck said Saturday she is glad the union still is willing to come to the table.
Kosmach said the union has offered compromises on salaries and retirement, but she would not provide details about those offers Saturday.
"We are compromising," she said. "We're not seeing it across the table."
Barclay said the school board is "unable to move" financially from the proposals in its offer.
"Our position has been we've basically reached a point where we can't continue to increase the value of our offer given the economic conditions we're in," Barclay said. "We're willing to make it fit better with the union's expectations, but we can't continue to compromise by adding more money to the deal."
The union has promised to give the board notice if teachers will strike, and the board advises parents to continue checking for automatic phone messages and emails with updates about the situation. But a strike will not happen Monday, the first day it legally could after the union filed an intent to strike notice before the holidays.
"The teachers are going to teach and meet their students' needs like they have been doing since August without a contract," Kosmach said.
District 33 serves about 4,000 students at six elementary schools, one middle school and a preschool that meets at two locations.