Strife has become a theme in U-46

 
 
Published11/30/2007 12:23 AM

The very first article I wrote as an Elgin Area School District U-46 reporter was about the efforts of local residents to mediate the dispute between U-46 and the families accusing the district of racial bias.

Two years and many billable hours later, the bias lawsuit still looms and another mediator is headed to the district, this time to intervene in the ongoing teacher contract dispute.

 

I'm also writing my last U-46 column before moving on to cover regional education issues for the paper.

It's an arbitrary timeline, my stint as a U-46 reporter.

Still, the fact that mediation sessions were twin bookends of my time here seems, if nothing else, like a convenient column topic.

U-46 officials never did accept an offer by the U.S. Department of Justice to help mediate the racial bias lawsuit, filed in February 2005 by black and Hispanic families.

They did accept the overtures of residents, who brought U-46 officials and lawyers for the families together informally, to try to avoid a protracted, prohibitively expensive legal battle in which only lawyers would come out victorious.

In short, to avoid precisely what the lawsuit has become.

This time, U-46 and union officials called the federal mediator themselves.

U-46's 2,400 teachers have been working without a contract since the beginning of the school year.

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They narrowly rejected a tentative deal in October.

Since then, they've lined up to tell the school board that they feel overwhelmed and underappreciated.

Overwhelmed by large class sizes and case loads, and by the barrage of new initiatives the district has introduced over the past five years.

Under-appreciated by administrators and the school board.

It's an us-versus-them mentality that will lead to a teacher strike if concessions aren't made on both sides.

And it's precisely the mentality that union and district officials hoped to avoid when they agreed to use interest-based -- or "win-win" -- negotiating strategies.

I don't know if the bias lawsuit could ever have been resolved in a collaborative, "win-win" fashion.

The sides were too diametrically opposed.

But there was a time, before the lawsuit was filed, that the families and the district seemed very close to a deal.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

It fell apart -- each side blames the other -- and the district implemented, of its own volition, many of the initiatives the settlement deal would have required.

Taxpayers have spent at least $3 million since then defending the lawsuit. If U-46 loses, taxpayers will be on the hook for the families' legal bills too.

It's a stark reminder of what happens when two sides dig in their heels.

Here's hoping the first article the new U-46 reporter writes isn't about a strike.

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