After months of controversy, surveys and pleas from working parents, the Palatine Township Elementary District 15 board made a decision -- albeit a divided one -- that supports the wishes of the community over those of the teachers union.
More than three dozen people who gathered for the special Friday night meeting cheered when the final vote was cast in favor of dismissing about 20 schools early every Friday beginning next fall to accommodate a block of professional development time for teachers.
The Classroom Teachers' Council had pushed to start classes late every Wednesday, recently informing the district it would consider filing a grievance or litigation to force the issue to arbitration.
"The last few months have been extremely difficult for everyone involved in this decision," board member Manjula Sriram said.
Supporters of the early dismissal option cited several benefits, including the need for young and special-needs children to have consistent morning schedules; the ease of figuring out day care in the afternoon; the ability for kids to focus better in the morning; and safety concerns about kids on their own locking up their homes in the morning.
Board member Rich Bokor voted against the early Friday dismissal option, and Peggy Babcock abstained. David Seiffert is out of the country and didn't attend the meeting.
Babcock said there are still too many unanswered questions and worries about unsupervised junior high students getting into trouble on Friday afternoons. She also pointed to the teachers' contract, saying it was negotiated in good faith and signed by the entire board. The contract requires a late start unless there is "overwhelming opposition from parents."
More than 1,300 people over a two-week period signed a petition opposing the late start option, and the vast majority of parents who responded to a district survey preferred an early Friday dismissal.
Bokor said the union last week agreed to sit down and discuss the issue and should be given the opportunity to do so.
"We have not tried to reach a compromise," Bokor said.
However, the other four board members and several parents who spoke said the union has had months and ample opportunities to explain why the district should opt for the late start option. No union representative ever addressed the issue at a board meeting or the special forum in January. President Lisa Nuss did not respond to a call for comment.
Remarks by Superintendent Scott Thompson, who recommended the board go with a late start, were not warmly received at times.
Thompson said Friday afternoons aren't the "best time to learn" for teachers, adding that the union compromised on certain scheduling details based on feedback in the district's surveys. He also lauded the teachers' desire to hone their skills to improve children's education.
"Many districts want this professional development time, and we are fortunate the teachers brought this forward," Thompson said. "They feel like they had agreement at the bargaining table for a late start. They're not threatening litigation; they're threatening that we've violated the terms of our agreement when we shook hands, and I don't like to see them disparaged because they're quality people."
Board President Tim Millar, who was elected a Palatine councilman and will be replaced by James Ekeberg at the May 8 board meeting, said the board had wanted to vote on the issue a couple of weeks ago but had hoped for a response from the union with its rationale for wanting a late start. He said it was important for the current board to make the final decision because it negotiated the teachers contract and knows its terms.