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Article updated: 1/17/2013 7:15 PM

Strike threat growing in West Chicago District 33

By Bob Smith

Pressure is mounting in West Chicago Elementary District 33 as both sides in tumultuous contract talks between the school board and teachers union are setting deadlines aimed at forcing a settlement.

The school board last week announced it will impose its final contract offer on the district's 284 teachers if an agreement isn't reached by Feb. 21. The teachers responded Wednesday by voting overwhelmingly to authorize their negotiating team to call a strike, although no date has been set.

Both sides say they're willing to return to the bargaining table, but after 16 months of talks, no new sessions are scheduled.

The stalemate leaves the district's 4,000 students and their parents in limbo. It's also taking its toll on members of both negotiating teams, who describe themselves as "tired."

"I'm disappointed," school board President Christine Scheck said Thursday, "but we're willing to sit down if the union is willing to talk about working within the parameters of what we can afford."

"We just want to get back to the table ... and put this contract to bed," union spokeswoman Mary Catherine Kosmach said.

The two sides remain far apart on issues involving salary, health insurance, retirement provisions, class size and teacher appraisals. School board members say the difference between their last proposal and the union's would cost an extra $3.5 million over the life of the proposed three-year agreement -- an amount the district can't afford.

Both sides say they've made compromises to try and reach an agreement.

"We have offered significant concessions on every one of the school board's key issues, but they keep demanding more," Kosmach said in a statement. "The teachers remain committed to the negotiation process, but patience wears very thin when we face continual threats of imposition and cuts."

She said the board's threat to impose a final contract came just one day after the union proposed an insurance package identical to what the board provides for administrators. She said that offer would have reduced the district's health insurance costs by close to $700,000 over two years.

District officials, meanwhile, said the board on Jan. 9 presented an offer to settle "all outstanding issues ... which represented substantial movement beyond the board's last best offer made in December. That offer was rejected by the teachers union."

Scheck said the board agreed to accept the union's retirement offer for at least the three years of the contract, but with a sunset clause. She said the board also backed off on its demand for a cap on health insurance costs.

Salaries also remain a major stumbling block. Kosmach said any gains teachers would make in proposed pay increases would be more than offset by increased insurance costs.

For now, though, the two sides aren't doing much talking. Scheck said she learned of the union's decision to authorize a strike date through the Daily Herald. Kosmach said she would have to read the district's website to see the board's official reaction to the possibility of a strike.

Both sides say they've tried to compromise and both sides say the other has not responded in kind.

"The level of communication has gone down," Kosmach said.

Kosmach was meeting Thursday evening with other members of the union's negotiating team to plan their next step.

The union has pledged to give the district 24 hours before a strike and Scheck said the district is prepared for that possibility.

In such an event, officials plan to offer programs for students in grades one through five at Pioneer and Gary elementary schools. No such services will be available for students in preschool, kindergarten or junior high, but both West Chicago Park District and the West Chicago Library have said they will offer programming.

Scheck said roughly 900 students have preregistered for such programs and "we have plenty of personnel to assist. We're most definitely ready."

There are no classes scheduled for Friday or Monday, so the earliest a strike could come would be Tuesday.

Kosmach said teachers hope it doesn't come to that.

"All teachers are asking for is compromise," she said. "At this point the school board seems more interested in conflict."

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