West Chicago High School teachers contract talks end with no deal

West Chicago High School teachers met with school board negotiators for more than four hours Monday night without reaching a contract agreement, but the two sides plan to resume talks Thursday in an effort to avoid a strike that would leave more than 2,000 students out of classes.

Bargaining teams on Monday held their longest session since contract talks began nearly two years ago. The board presented a full contract proposal, but teachers are still reviewing the terms, Union President Brad Larson said.

School board President Gary Saake said "progress was made but differences remain" after Monday night's talks.

The West Chicago High School Teachers Association, the union that represents 141 employees, will consider the offer at its membership meeting after classes Tuesday.

Teachers and supporters sent union negotiators into the Monday session with a round of applause before holding a candlelight vigil outside district offices in downtown West Chicago. Educators and other speakers voiced frustration with the long-running dispute in front of a crowd of several dozen students and community members who carried signs reading "WeGo's Worth It."

"It is time for the board to put forth a fair contract that will attract quality teachers to WeGo, retain quality teachers at WeGo and reward quality teachers for their loyalty to WeGo," said Brian Wheeler, a special education teacher. "This is about our school, our community and most importantly our students."

The strike threat comes after nearly two years of talks that have left the two sides far apart on salaries, health benefits and other key issues. The union first declared an impasse in negotiations in January and then filed a 10-day notice of its intent to strike, allowing teachers to legally walk off the job as early as Monday.

But the union has not yet set a strike date, Larson said shortly before the vigil. Earlier Monday, teachers also began occupying a downtown West Chicago building the union is leasing for a potential strike headquarters.

"At this point no decision has been made about walking, but with every bargaining session, we're closer to that decision," Larson said about 5 p.m. Monday.

Heading into talks Monday, the two sides had not scheduled any additional sessions to discuss a proposed four-year contract. The board also had agreed "in principle" to structure teacher pay through a salary schedule, Larson said before the vigil.

The board had "focused on a salary formula based on the consumer price index to determine the cost of each teacher's salary individually," according to a union statement last month.

Teachers brought a nearly identical proposal to the most-recent bargaining session last Wednesday as they've brought to previous sessions, Saake said last week.

"The board presented a fixed salary schedule (Monday) evening, which the association had indicated was an extremely high priority for them, versus the CPI-based formula that was in our prior proposals," Saake said in a statement Monday night. "The same total dollar figure was included, just distributed differently. There was significant discussion about the proposed salary schedule, and adjustments were made to it during the evening."

Nearly 2,100 students could be left out of classes should teachers strike for the first time since 1984. The district is finalizing arrangements with park districts and libraries in Carol Stream, Winfield and West Chicago to offer programming in the event teachers walk picket lines.

All sports and activities also would be canceled, Superintendent Doug Domeracki said in a letter to parents earlier this month.

The district would notify families of an impending strike through its automated phone call system and updates on its website, Parents also can opt to receive text messages.

The union announced last Thursday that teachers are "working to terms," meaning that all members are working only during paid hours on certain days of the week. Teachers are arriving at school no earlier than 7:30 a.m. and leaving immediately at 3:10 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The only members exempt from this action are those who have paid assignments before 7:30 a.m. and after 3:10 p.m.

The board and the union started preliminary contract discussions in April 2016. Teachers have been working under the terms of a one-year contract extension that expired in August.

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  West Chicago High School Teachers Association President Brad Larson addresses a crowd of several dozen at a candlelight vigil Monday to call for a contract settlement with the district. Mark Black/
  West Chicago High School teachers held a candlelight vigil while negotiators for the union and school board met Monday in what may be a last-ditch effort to avoid a strike. Mark Black/
  David Exner, an art teacher at West Chicago High School, attends the candlelight vigil outside district offices Monday. Mark Black/
  West Chicago High School teachers union President Brad Larson speaks during a candlelight vigil "to pray for a fair" contract settlement outside district office on Monday. Mark Black/
  West Chicago High School teachers holding a candlelight vigil "to pray for a fair" contract settlement outside district office on Monday. Mark Black/
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