West Chicago High School teachers prepare for Friday strike vote

West Chicago High School teachers will vote to authorize a strike Friday as tensions with the school board escalate after nearly two years of contract talks.

Teachers met for three hours Wednesday to discuss the possibility of striking as early as next month. Union leaders pledged to continue negotiations, but the two sides are not scheduled to return to the bargaining table until Feb. 7.

Earlier Wednesday, a state labor board released contract proposals exchanged by the two sides in the wake of an impasse filing by the union that represents 141 educators in the district.

The West Chicago High School Teachers Association and the school board each have proposed a four-year contract, but deep divisions remain over teacher pay and benefits. The two sides also have disagreed over whether the district could afford the union's offer.

At the latest session Monday, the school board offered to increase salaries for union members by an average of roughly 12 percent over four years.

The proposal would boost teacher pay by an average 2.87 percent in the first year of the contract, 3.38 percent in the second year, 2.68 percent in the third year and 2.65 percent in the fourth. Those increases include pay raises tied to a teacher's length of service and education.

"I think we have an extraordinarily fair offer on the table," school board President Gary Saake said.

The proposal would cost the district roughly $2.9 million over the four years, Saake said. The board was able to make a "better offer" than the one submitted to the state labor panel because of recent recalculations, but it would still fit within its budget framework, Saake said.

The impasse offer by the board called for giving teachers cumulative raises ranging from 7.64 percent to 9.72 percent over the four years.

The board still wants to phase out a retirement incentive that gives teachers a 6 percent salary increase in the final four years of their employment. That 6 percent cap allows the district to avoid paying penalties established in a state law meant to discourage schools from giving late-career pay raises that boost teacher pensions.

The district would eliminate the incentive when the four-year contract expires at the end of the 2020-21 school year. The board also wants to sunset a provision that calls for paying insurance benefits for retirees until they are old enough to qualify for Medicare.

The impasse notice to the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board earlier this month gave bargaining teams one week to swap "final" contract offers.

Negotiators were unable to reach an agreement by a Tuesday deadline, prompting the labor board to disclose the details of both offers on its website. The public posting of the bargaining proposals also is required by law as one of the steps the union must take before teachers legally can strike.

On Wednesday evening, Saake urged union members to reconsider a strike authorization vote. He said the district has prepared for a possible walkout by teachers, but he declined to comment on contingency plans for the high school's nearly 2,100 students.

"I hope they think and long hard about what the impact of that would be on the students and the community and just ask themselves what they believe it accomplishes in the end," he said.

Union negotiators say they are seeking a four-year contract that would provide teachers with average salary increases of 17 percent over the life of the pact. They say the pay raises would cost the district an estimated $2.7 million over four years, including increases to base salaries tied to the rate of inflation, as well as so-called step and lane increases.

"If we thought that the board had moved sufficiently, we would not be having this vote," Union President Brad Larson said. "We would be looking at ways to finalize this contract, but that's not where we are. Our goal is to try settle a contract that will allow the district to hire high-quality teachers and retain them, and the board's proposal actually is a long way from achieving that goal in any meaningful way."

The board and the West Chicago High School Teachers Association started preliminary contract discussions in April 2016 and have been exchanging proposals since last April.

22 months into talks, still no deal in West Chicago District 94

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