Parents 'happy it's over' as Dist. 33 classes resume
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Teachers, protesting here at Gary Elementary school in West Chicago, returned to the classroom Thursday after a three-day strike. A tentative contract agreement was reached shortly after midnight.
Paul Michna | Staff Photographer
Parents, teachers and school officials were expressing relief Thursday that a strike appears to be over and classes resumed Thursday at West Chicago Elementary District 33.
A tentative deal was reached early Thursday, and school officials began notifying parents by phone that classes would be back in session this morning.
"We heard last night (Wednesday) at 9:30 that there was no school, and then we were abruptly awoken at 2 a.m. saying that school was going to happen," said parent Stacy Rachus, who has a daughter in kindergarten and two older students at Indian Knoll school.
Rachus and other parents picking up children from morning kindergarten Thursday said they were glad classes resumed, especially for the district's youngest students for whom no alternative programming was available during the strike.
"I'm just happy it's over with and they figured it all out because the kids need to be in school," Rachus said.
Neither chief teachers union negotiator Mary Catherine Kosmach nor District 33 school board spokesman Dave Barclay would disclose any details of the agreement, but both confirmed they reached it after nearly 12 hours of talks with a federal mediator that began at 1 p.m. Wednesday.
Kosmach said the terms of the agreement was being presented to teachers at 3:15 p.m. today.
"Yes, we are happy that after 16 months it is over," Kosmach said.
The district's 284 teachers began striking Monday after more than 16 months of negotiations in which the two sides failed to come to an agreement on a proposed three-year contract. The strike canceled classes for about 4,000 students at six elementary schools, one middle school and a preschool program that meets at two locations.
"I'm very relieved and I'm glad we could end it," Barclay said about the strike. "It has been a strain on the community, a strain on the kids, a strain on the parents."
Barclay said the district was beginning to call parents, even as they slept, with its automated phone system to tell them that classes will resume this morning. The district's website was updated after 1 a.m. to say classes are resuming on a normal schedule.
Some parents weren't happy about being awoken after midnight with the district's automated phone message -- and Barclay apologized for that -- but said it was "important we got word out" that school was back in session.
Even though the formal contract ratification process is still to come, Barclay said the tentative agreement reached early Thursday was enough to pull teachers off the picket lines and put students back in classrooms.
"When you reach a tentative agreement, it means both parties feel they have an agreement that the union can sell to its teachers, and the board's negotiating team can get the board to authorize," Barclay said. "And they sign off on that in good faith and go back to work and let the process be finalized."
Asked if she was happy with the talks and the agreement, Kosmach said only, "It was productive."
Barclay said the talks were "very professional," with members of each side spending a lot of time among themselves working out their proposals that would be presented with the help of the federal mediator.
"By this time the communications were good," Barclay said. "I'm sure he (the mediator) was helpful, but the teams stepped up, too."
"We were dealing with some tough economic issues," he said. "We feel we made an agreement that's fiscally responsible and reasonable, and we were able to bridge the gaps."
Wednesday's session had marked the fifth time the two sides met in nine days. Several major sticking points remained as the two sides resumed talks, including salary, health insurance, class sizes and the extended school day.
Negotiators met for hours Tuesday night, Kosmach said earlier Wednesday, but at one point the board "went backward" on its proposals for salaries and insurance.
Teachers in District 33 have been working without a contract since last summer.
When negotiations broke down Sunday, the board had been proposing a new 23-step salary schedule with automatic annual raises between 2 percent and 2½ percent.
The union requested 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.
The union had also been willing to accept an 18-step schedule -- an increase from the current 12-step schedule.
On the issue of insurance, the board had said it wants to put an upper limit of $1,200 on the amount it pays into a family PPO plan in an effort to control costs.
Currently, the district pays 80 percent of costs in that particular plan, which officials say is chosen by a majority of teachers.
The union had said it wants the same type of coverage as administrators and custodians, whose union has a three-year agreement keeping the 80 percent coverage in place.
The school board will hold a special meeting to discuss the negotiations with the public at 5 p.m. today in advance of a regularly scheduled board meeting at 7 p.m. The meeting is scheduled to be held in the library community room at West Chicago Middle School, 238 E. Hazel St.
District officials said it would be an opportunity for parents and community members to "share concerns, ask questions and engage in discussion with board members in an informal meeting."
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