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Article updated: 1/30/2013 2:05 PM

West Chicago teachers: Little choice but to strike Monday

By Bob Smith

Saying they've been left with little choice, teachers in West Chicago Elementary District 33 plan to go on strike Monday if a contract agreement isn't reached with the school board in the next several days.

The strike would cancel classes for roughly 4,000 students at six elementary schools, one junior high and a preschool that meets at two locations in the district.

"We are disappointed and disheartened that our professional negotiations have come down to this," the union's chief negotiator, Mary Catherine Kosmach, said in a written statement. "But for months we have had to deal with a school board that is intractable -- one that refuses to compromise fairly and then threatens to impose its final offer on us. We are left with little choice."

The strike threat comes after a five-hour negotiating session Tuesday with a federal mediator produced "very little to no movement," Kosmach said Wednesday. The two sides are scheduled to return to the bargaining table at 5 p.m. Thursday, but there is little hope for a quick settlement.

Both Kosmach and school board President Chris Scheck said their respective teams are willing to meet throughout the weekend to head off a possible walkout.

"I don't think it will be resolved Thursday," Scheck said, "but we're ready to negotiate for as long as it takes right up to Monday morning."

The district's 284 teachers voted overwhelmingly on Jan. 16 to authorize its union leadership to set a strike date.

Kosmach said the union is not yet sure where it would establish its picket lines, but its crisis team is expected to have a plan in place by Friday.

The two sides have been at the bargaining table for 16 months and the talks have grown increasingly bitter as progress on a proposed three-year contract has ground to a halt. Although the two sides have reached some agreements, key issues such as salary, health insurance, retirement provisions, class sizes and teacher appraisal methods remain unresolved.

School board members said they presented an offer on Jan. 9 to settle "all outstanding issues" that represented substantial progress beyond the board's last best offer in December. They said the union rejected that offer.

The school board announced earlier this month that it will impose its final contract offer on the union if an agreement isn't reached by Feb. 21. The union responded by taking the strike vote.

"We have offered significant concessions time after time on every one of the school board's key issues, but they have said they will not budge," Kosmach said. "It truly is unfair and it forces the teachers to take a stand."

"We're trying (to reach an agreement)," she said. "We never wanted to have to strike. It's why we've stayed at the table for 16 months. We have compromised and now we need the board to do the same."

Kosmach said Tuesday's session primarily involved contract language concerning issues such as class size and extended work years for teachers. But even those talks bogged down, leaving more contentious issues such as salary, insurance and retirement benefits still in limbo.

"We're locked on a few issues," Kosmach said. "Some of that language already should be off the table, but it's not."

Scheck said the board was expecting the union to present a new economic proposal at Tuesday's meeting, but it did not. She said she is hopeful the union will present such a proposal Thursday.

Scheck said the board is open to "creative solutions" for solving the outstanding economic issues, but "we can't throw money that we don't have into it."

In the event of a strike, the district plans 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 already have preregistered for such programs.

Both sides are outlining their views of the negotiations on their websites: the union's is wego33wecare.com and the district's is wego33.org.

Parents with questions are being urged to contact the district's community relations specialist, Gina Steinbrecher, at (630) 293-6000, ext. 201, or by email at steinbrecherg@wego33.org.

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