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Article updated: 2/5/2013 11:18 AM

In West Chicago Dist. 33, even how talks ended is in dispute

By Christopher Placek Bob Smith

Striking teachers were walking picket lines Monday in West Chicago Elementary District 33 with little immediate hope of a contract settlement that would allow roughly 4,000 students back into their regular classes.

Negotiations between the teachers union and school board collapsed Sunday night after more than 16 months at the bargaining table, triggering Monday's walkout. No new talks have been scheduled.

Picket lines went up as early as 5:40 a.m. outside West Chicago Middle School as the strike canceled classes at six elementary schools, the junior high and a preschool that meets at two locations.

It's the first strike in District 33 since the teachers union organized 52 years ago.

The district's 284 teachers walked picket lines outside every district school except Indian Knoll, said Bridget Fors, a member of the union negotiating team and a speech pathologist at Pioneer School.

It appears they will be back at it on Tuesday.

"We were hoping to avoid this at all costs," Fors said. "We were prepared to be in class today."

Negotiating teams for the union and school board met for nearly 11 hours Sunday but emerged frustrated and angry and without an agreement on a proposed three-year deal.

The two sides remain far apart on the issues at the heart of the disagreement, including salary, health insurance, retirement benefits, class sizes and methods for teacher appraisals.

They met three times in the past week with a federal mediator, but their disagreements run deep.

Even the end of Sunday's last-ditch bargaining session was shrouded in controversy. The school board said the union rejected its settlement offer at 10:38 p.m. and also rejected a suggestion that it postpone the strike while continuing talks.

But Mary Catherine Kosmach, the union's chief negotiator, said teachers weren't aware the talks had ended.

"The board walked out and didn't tell us," she said. "We asked the mediator to ask them to consider other options, but they had already left. No dates have been set (for further talks) because they left the building without telling us.

"We teach students to respect and listen to one another. I know people can have their differences, but this was a lack of respect."

The union negotiating team sent school board President Chris Scheck an email Monday afternoon expressing its frustration. Scheck has not attended the last two negotiating sessions.

"As the school board's president and chief negotiator, you might have been in a position to help us reach a different outcome if you had been present for the two bargaining sessions leading up to the strike deadline," the letter stated.

In a written statement, the board said it took "extraordinary measures to close the gap" on Sunday between the union's proposal and the board's last offer. Those measures, the board said, included:

Ÿ Agreeing to delay implementation of any salary changes for one year. The teachers would receive raises this year based on the current salary schedule. The average teacher salary in District 33 exceeds $75,000, the board said.

Ÿ Agreeing to delay any changes in health insurance plans for 1 years and promising that the same insurance changes will be implemented for administrators concurrent with the teachers.

Ÿ Agreeing to accept a proposal to give retiring teachers a post-retirement bonus of $700 per year of service; a teacher with 30 years of service would receive $21,000. The money would be paid by the district and would not impact the state pension teachers receive.

Ÿ Dropping a proposal that teachers have up to two paid evening meetings with parents each year in addition to the two that already are required.

Ÿ Dropping a proposal to require teachers to have two 75-minute faculty meetings a month instead of the current single 90-minute monthly meeting.

Ÿ Agreeing to incorporate substantial changes proposed by the union in language regarding teacher evaluations and reductions in force.

But those proposals were made in an effort to avoid a strike and are now "not necessarily on the table," school board spokesman Dave Barclay said Monday.

"At this point, we need to negotiate from our official last best offer (from December)," he said.

Here's a closer look at the key disagreements between the two sides:

Salaries: The board is seeking a new 23-step salary schedule with automatic annual raises between 2 percent and 2 percent. The union wants automatic raises of up to 3.4 percent, as well as a 1.25 percent increase on base salaries in years two and three of the contract.

Kosmach said the request is only fair because teachers took a 1.75 percent stipend cut at the start of the school year.

She said the union is willing to accept an 18-step schedule -- an increase from the current 12-step schedule -- but the board doesn't appear willing to budge.

Teachers previously offered to accept a one-year salary freeze as part of a package of economic concessions that Kosmach says would save the district more than $2 million over the course of the three-year contract.

"Teachers understand that times are hard and we're willing to do our part," she said. "It's a question of how much cutting is reasonable and what the board is demanding will ultimately be bad for students and this community."

Insurance: The district currently covers 80 percent of the costs of insurance coverage for teachers' families in what Barclay calls the district's "rich" PPO plan. The board is seeking to limit how much it pays at $1,200 in an effort to control costs, but it would continue to cover 80 percent in one of the district's less-expensive insurance plans.

Kosmach said teachers want the same type of coverage as administrators and custodians, whose union has a three-year agreement keeping the 80 percent coverage in place.

The board says it's committed that changes in insurance will be rolled out concurrently with those affecting administrators.

Class sizes: Barclay said the board can't accept the union's plan to cap class sizes that is estimated to cost $1.6 million in salaries for new teachers and would require the district to build another school or rent classrooms from other districts.

He said it would be "logistically impossible" to implement.

Barclay said the district has been forced to enact belt-tightening measures over the past three years in the face of declining revenues. Cuts have included a reduction in administrative, library and support staff and elimination of a gifted program.

"We have to work with the revenue we have," he said.

Kosmach expressed frustration that the board spent a $4.5 million surplus last year after it received increased state funding due to the district's poverty level status. She also says the board is using a "very conservative" budget estimate.

Talks between the two sides have been ragged for some time but became more intense in January when the board announced it would impose its final contract offer on the union if an agreement wasn't reached by Feb. 21. The union responded by voting to authorize a strike.

Barclay said school days missed due to the strike will have to be made up, though district officials aren't sure when that will occur.

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