'We don't want to do this': Addison elementary teachers rally as potential strike looms
With a possible strike that would impact 4,000 students just two days away, several hundred Addison Elementary District 4 teachers and supporters rallied Tuesday to put pressure on the school board to return to the bargaining table.
Teachers in red shirts met outside an Addison restaurant for the demonstration Tuesday night, insisting they're willing to resume talks with the school board. But no new negotiating sessions have been scheduled, bringing teachers closer to the district's first strike in 28 years.
The school board has declared an impasse in talks, and the union has filed an intent to strike notice that would allow teachers to walk out of classrooms as early as Thursday. The two sides last met on Oct. 7.
"We're ready to go to work on Thursday," said Luz Chavez, a dual-language teacher at Fullerton Elementary School. "We're ready to go to work next week. We are waiting for the board to open the doors. We are not ready for a strike. We don't want to do this. We don't want to be forced to do the strike because that's not what we want. We feel like they're going to go back to the negotiation table, and that's what we want."
When asked if a strike were imminent, Addison Teachers' Association co-President Allison Andrikokus said teachers were "going to take it day by day."
"We're still looking for any way back in. We're still looking for those ways, and that's our main focus still right now," she said at the rally behind Venuti's Italian Restaurant.
The teachers have been working under the terms of an expired contract since June 30. The key sticking points in the stalemate are salaries and insurance costs, plus disagreement over teacher retention and the use of the district's reserves.
The school board's last offer called for a five-year contract with annual raises of 3%. Based on its proposal posted on the state's Educational Labor Relations Board website, the union is seeking raises of 5.25% for this school year, followed by annual increases of 5%, 4.75%, 4.25% and 4.25%.
"We've had some experiences in the past where the salary increases haven't really covered insurance increases," Andrikokus said. "So people have actually taken in the past, I'd say nine years, there are quite a few staff members that have taken hits as opposed to moving forward to be able to cover their cost of living."
The union represents 327 teachers, speech pathologists, media specialists, social workers and psychologists who work in seven elementary schools, an early learning center and a junior high.
Union members say the district is losing good teachers to higher-paying jobs in nearby communities. They say the district has lost about 23 teachers a year over the last five.
"Those issues then can trickle down into the classroom because you either leave to find something that compensates you better, and then those relationships with students are severed," Andrikokus said. "Those relationships with teachers are severed where you can't collaborate and work together, or you're struggling by working outside of the school day at a second job."
But Superintendent John Langton said District 4's retention rate -- 84.2% -- is comparable to that of surrounding elementary districts. The district also points to Illinois School Report Card data that shows the average teacher retention rate in the state is 85.2%. In a district that employs more than 500 people, Langton said, some turnover is inevitable.
"We're not losing teachers because we don't pay them enough," he said. "I'm very confident in that."
The union also has criticized the district for its roughly $47 million budget surplus. But Langton says the district has set aside $35 million to repair and renovate its schools over the next five years. Most of those buildings date to the 1970s or earlier. The fund balance, Langton said, will allow the district to make those improvements without asking taxpayers for more money.
"They should absolutely invest in our buildings too, but one of the things that they still have to address is that instructional spending and spending on the people who are in those classrooms," Andrikokus said.
This last school year, a first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree received a $44,803 starting salary under the most recent contract.
"Both sides are in agreement for reasonable, starting salary increases in a future contract," Langton said. "So the starting salary has not been a sticking point. It's those annual raises that everybody receives that has been the source of frustration."
By declaring an impasse in the negotiations, the school board has put itself in a position to impose its last offer if the two sides cannot agree on a new pact.
In the event of a strike, officials are evaluating whether the district could keep schools open and properly staff buildings to provide a safe place for students, Langton said.
"We are hopeful that we will either be able to have either formal or informal conversations this week," he said.
Contract talks began in February, and the two sides have been working with a federal mediator since June.
Teachers last went on strike in 1991.