Prospect Hts. teachers union chief: Parents could be in for a 'long haul'
The teacher strike at Prospect Heights Elementary District 23 has canceled classes for a second day, and no new negotiating sessions are scheduled, meaning that Friday classes could also be in jeopardy.
Union President Bob Miller told parents late Wednesday that they could be in for a "long haul" if tensions between his group and the District 23 school board don't ease soon.
The problem now is who will make the first move.
"Anywhere, anytime, we are ready to negotiate," union spokesman Dan Perillo told parents.
School board President Mari-Lynn Peters, who met with Miller briefly on Wednesday afternoon, said the next offer must come from the Prospect Heights Education Association.
"They decided to go on strike and they didn't have to," she said. "We have not locked teachers out of our buildings. They have abandoned our children."
Peters said the union's last offer was a nonstarter, because it included the reinstatement of a teacher salary schedule that was eliminated by both parties in 2014.
No negotiating happened on Wednesday as classes and activities were canceled for 1,500 students after talks broke down late Tuesday. Students attending the district live in Prospect Heights, Mount Prospect, Arlington Heights and Wheeling, and many attended park district programs in lieu of school.
As of their last negotiations Tuesday night, the District 23 school board and the roughly 150 teachers and educational support staffers were still about $500,000 apart on salary. They are working to finalize a new three-year contract.
Peters said the school board's last offer was a 3.25 percent increase for most teachers and noncertified staff members in the first two years and a 3 percent raise the third year. Teachers making more than $90,000 per year would get less -- a 1.75 percent raise the first year and 1.5 percent the second and third years.
The union is asking for 4.25 or 4.5 percent raises each year with no differentiation for the highest-paid teachers. Miller said the union's aim is to keep experienced teachers from leaving District 23 for better-paying jobs.
For the past several years taken together, District 23's teacher retention rate has been 80 percent, the lowest among the six elementary school districts that feed into Northwest Suburban High School District 214, he said.
He acknowledged the retention rate last year was 93 percent but considers that a fluke in a wider pattern.
"We don't want this to become a revolving-door district," Miller said, adding too many teachers get their experience in District 23 and then move on, giving another district the benefit of that experience.
The Prospect Heights district has the second-lowest average teacher pay (only Mount Prospect District 57 is lower) and the second-lowest top-end teacher pay among those six feeder districts -- seven including District 214, he said.
Peters didn't directly address the 80 percent claim but said the union is exaggerating the effect of salary on teacher retention. She said that of the nine union teachers who left District 23 last year, three retired, two moved out of town with spouses who changed jobs, and one quit because his/her commute was too long.
Underlying the stalemate over raises is the teacher salary schedule, which the district and union mutually agreed to abandon in 2014 in exchange for raises. The union says it agreed to eliminate the schedule with the understanding that it could return once the economy improves.
Peters said the board doesn't want the schedule back at all and would prefer the district move to a more merit-based pay system.
"We don't want to tie the taxpayers of our district to a salary schedule," she said. "We can't sustain such large increases -- they are not in sync with the people who are paying these increases."
Miller countered that a salary schedule makes it easier to compare compensation among districts, and abandoning it allows districts to hide the fact they pay less.
A schedule, he said, "is an open, transparent document."
Both sides say merit pay has not been discussed, or discussed very little, in these negotiations.
By 7:45 a.m. Wednesday, teachers were lining up along Palatine Road near Schoenbeck Road, carrying signs and chanting "Stop the delay, work with us today," and "Our kids deserve the best, so let's put this to rest."
Crossing guard Bob Massi of Prospect Heights was at his post Wednesday morning as usual. The corner of Palatine and Schoenbeck roads is a "dangerous intersection" he said, and he wanted to be there in case some kids came along who had not heard about the strike.
By 8 a.m. one boy on his bicycle showed up, and Massi explained he could go home.
Meanwhile, the Prospect Heights, Arlington Heights and Wheeling park districts have geared up to offer programs for students at their community centers to help parents who cannot afford to stay home from work.
At the Gary Morava Center in Prospect Heights, all 50 available slots for children were filled Wednesday. Park district Superintendent of Recreation Julie Caporusso said they are booked in advance for today and even Friday, if necessary.
Pam Jelaca, an Arlington Heights mom with two children in District 23, was outside district headquarters Wednesday morning, supporting the teachers.
"I'm very upset they haven't come to an agreement and the kids are out of school," she said. "I believe that teachers should be among the best-paid professions. They are the ones who are setting the future, for the country, for the world."
According to District 23's most recent compensation report from 2013-14, full-time teachers averaged a base salary of $65,183. The median salary of the 103 full-time teachers listed was slightly less at $63,515. That year, 23 of the full-time teachers, or 22 percent of them, made more than $85,000 a year as a base salary. The top full-time salary was listed at $97,955, while the lowest was listed at $36,230.
The district also employed 11 part-time educators who averaged a $26,636 base salary.
The union held two public meetings Wednesday to discuss the strike. At the first one, with about 20 parents in the audience, the discussion centered not on money but on a lack of sufficient substitute teachers in District 23. Union spokesman Dan Perillo said too often, when teachers have to be out of the classroom, there's no qualified sub to take the class -- which instead gets a librarian or support person to stay with it for the period.
This is the first teacher strike in District 23 history, but the relationship between teachers and the administration has been strained for decades. In 1998, a strike was avoided at the eleventh hour -- when many parents stepped forward to demand a settlement. Another strike was defused in 2000, again after a marathon bargaining session.
• Daily Herald staff writers Jake Griffin and Erin Hegarty contributed to this report.