West Chicago teacher contract talks heading for weekend showdown
West Chicago students and parents probably will have to wait until late Sunday to learn if their teachers will be in class Monday or walking a picket line.
The West Chicago Elementary District 33 teachers union and school board exchanged contract proposals Thursday night and Friday afternoon in an effort to avert a strike that threatens to cancel classes for nearly 4,000 students, but it's unlikely a settlement is near.
The district's 284 teachers have said they will walk off the job if a settlement hasn't been reached by Monday's scheduled start of classes.
The two sides have been at the bargaining table for more than 16 months and are scheduled to meet again at 1 p.m. Sunday to try to reach an agreement on a proposed three-year deal. They have been unable to find common ground on many key issues, including salary, health insurance, retirement benefits and methods for teacher appraisals.
The two sides met with a federal mediator for five hours Tuesday without making progress, prompting the teachers to set a Monday strike date.
When they met again Thursday, the union presented its newest proposal. The school board reviewed that offer and responded with its own proposal on Friday.
The union's negotiating team will meet Saturday morning to discuss the board's latest offer, chief negotiator Mary Catherine Kosmach said. She said teachers were in classes Friday and did not have a chance to review the proposal immediately.
Kosmach said the board already has rejected the union's offer to freeze teacher salaries for the first year of the proposed pact. She said the teachers previously offered concessions on all remaining items in the negotiations.
"We have done everything we can to try to avoid a strike," she said in a written statement. "We've compromised on every item.
"This package of concessions would save the school district over $2 million over the life of the contract, but for some inexplicable reason, the board is intent on driving teachers out."
School board spokesman Dave Barclay said the board studied the union's latest proposal and "there are some things we can't live with."
He said the board will not discuss details of its latest offer until after Sunday's meeting.
"We want to give this the best possible chance to succeed," he said.
"We're really trying to do everything we can to avoid a strike," he said. "It comes down to the availability of resources. We're willing to make changes, but only in a manner that is fiscally responsible."
"No one wants a strike," Kosmach said in a release. "But the board has drawn a line in the sand that is unfair to teachers and will hurt our schools' ability to attract and retain quality professionals. This type of unnecessary aggression is totally out of character with past negotiations and past school boards. At this point, we are being left with no choice but to stand up for our rights as professionals."
With the talks seemingly at a standstill, there are concerns the Sunday session may not give the two sides enough time to reach an agreement before Monday's strike date. Board members have offered to stay at the table throughout the weekend, but the union says it won't be ready to return until Sunday afternoon.
"We are disappointed," Barclay said, "and just hope the teachers are working on this with the same urgency we are."
School board members said they presented an offer Jan. 9 to settle "all outstanding issues," but the union rejected it.
The 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 voting to authorize a strike.
In the event of a strike, the district has said it will provide programming for students in grades one through five at Pioneer and Gary elementary schools. No such services would be available for students in preschool, kindergarten or junior high, but both West Chicago Park District and the West Chicago Public Library have said they will offer programs.