Will lower health insurance costs end long-running District 94 contract dispute?

Negotiators for West Chicago High School District 94 are hoping a proposal to reduce health insurance costs could help end a long-running contract dispute with the teachers union.

The school board and the West Chicago Teachers Association - the union that represents 141 district employees - started preliminary discussions in April 2016 and have been exchanging proposals since April 2017. Still, the two sides continue to disagree on a variety of issues, including salaries and benefits.

Teams for District 94 and the teachers union are holding bargaining sessions with a federal mediator, most recently on Wednesday evening.

During the roughly two-hour discussion, the school board presented "a conceptual model" to address the rising cost of health insurance. It calls for bringing in an outside consultant to review the district's health insurance coverage and recommend changes that could be used to lower the cost of premiums.

"The idea is that we're trying to keep costs down for both of us (teachers and the district)," school board President Gary Saake said Thursday.

If the teachers union backs the proposal, Saake said it would give the district flexibility in addressing other financial concerns raised during the negotiations.

"In and of itself, this is not a resolution," he said. "However, it is viewed by the board to be a pivotal issue in reaching an agreement."

Union President Brad Larson said it's not yet clear whether the proposal is in the best interest of the teachers.

"Both the board and the teachers association share an interest in trying to manage insurance costs," Larson said. "At the same time, the association is interested in making sure that our members have the best coverage possible and that insurance costs do not erode their earnings."

Larson said the union will review the health insurance proposal and have discussions with the district about it when the two sides meet again next month.

Four more meetings with the mediator are scheduled for Jan. 9, 16, 22 and 30.

Even if the health insurance proposal is accepted, Larson stressed there's still a lot that needs to be resolved.

"I would not characterize it as a piece of the puzzle that is going to lead to a complete solution," he said.

For example, he said, the district has yet to respond to the union's latest proposal for a five-year contract. The school board has been pushing for a three-year deal.

Saake said the board on Wednesday expressed a willingness to return to a traditional "step and lane" pay schedule.

"The dollar amounts that can be put on the schedule are dependent on the success of the discussion on insurance," he said.

District 94's teachers have been working under the terms of their old contract since it expired Aug. 13.

Larson said the union's goal is to achieve a new contract that will allow the district to attract and retain high-quality staff.

"Our concern here is not just for teacher salaries and benefits," Larson said. "Our concern is that the board of education takes the steps necessary to maintain and enhance the quality of the district and the experiences of our students over the long term."

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