A showdown is looming in the increasingly bitter contract talks between the West Chicago Elementary District 33 school board and its teachers union.
Union members will meet after class Wednesday to consider their options -- including a possible strike -- in the wake of the school board's announcement last week that it intends to implement its last contract offer if an agreement isn't reached by Feb. 21.
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The two sides have been at the bargaining table for more than 15 months, but remain far apart on health care and salaries. School board officials say the difference between the board's last offer and the union's would total roughly $3.5 million over the length of the proposed three-year contract.
The negotiating teams last met Jan. 3 and 4 and no new sessions are scheduled.
Teacher morale is dropping as the talks remain stalled and the rhetoric heats up, union spokeswoman Mary Catherine Kosmach said Monday.
"It's not good at all," she said. "The teachers are down, frustrated and angry and they feel unappreciated."
She said the board's threat to impose its last contract offer is not conducive to finding a compromise.
"An attempt to threaten or pressure teachers is the last thing we need when we are supposed to be finding creative ways around the current impasse," she said in a written statement. "The school board appears to be more interested in escalating conflict rather than resolving it."
School board members, meanwhile, said they needed to set a deadline because of the economic issues facing the district.
School board President Chris Scheck said gearing for a possible strike is costly and difficult. Administrators are being forced to prepare for numerous contingencies and to recruit volunteers to help provide programs for students in grades one through five that will be offered at Gary and Pioneer schools in the event of a job action.
There are no plans to offer programming for preschool and kindergarten students or those in sixth through eighth grade. To keep those students engaged, the West Chicago Park District and West Chicago Public Library have said they will offer programs during school hours in the event of a strike.
Scheck said she remains hopeful a strike can be averted and "the board is more than willing to continue to meet."
Kosmach, meanwhile, said union leadership will outline several options for its 284 members on Wednesday, including discussions of what would be involved in a job action.
The union filed an intent to strike notice with the district before the holidays and a walkout could begin at any time, although Kosmach has promised to give 24 hours notice.
She said the board's tough negotiating stance comes in a year when administrators continue to receive perks and salary increases. The teachers have offered to share the same insurance cuts as administrators, she said, but the board wants more.
The board has said its latest health care proposal offered to delay changes and eliminate a cap on premium payments that teachers have opposed.
Kosmach said the offer would have required teachers who choose coverage above the cheapest plan to contribute more.
District 33 serves roughly 4,000 students at six elementary schools, one middle school and a preschool that meets at two locations.