The Evergreen Park Dist. 124 school board ratified the hard-fought teachers contract after more than a half-year of fruitless bargaining and an eight-day work stoppage that disrupted the education of 1,800 elementary school students.
Before board members voted on the four-year contract, there were harsh words from both sides of the spectrum at Wednesday’s special school board meeting at Central Junior High School.
Students returned back to school on Monday.
“I wanted to tell you how immensely disappointed I was in the board during negotiations the last two weeks,” Liz Gorman, the mother of eighth-grade triplets said during public comments.
Gorman chastised the school board for not attending a community forum organized by the teachers union and moderated by an impartial third-party, even though board members had been invited.
“You represent the taxpayers of Evergreen Park and when your constituents requested a meeting. It seems that you should honor that request of the people you work for,” Gorman said. “You did not.”
Chuck Radgowski, father of four D124 students, said for the first time he was disappointed in the district’s teachers.
“I don’t know what goes through people’s heads out there today, but if you watched [the presidential debate] there is 8.6 percent unemployment,” he said. “If you don’t like what you got there are plenty of people sitting out there that if help wanted sign went up those positions would be filled.”
D124 School Board President Kathy Rohan said by the end of the strike, all seven board members became involved in contract negotiations.
“We wanted to make sure that we had everyone’s input because we obviously needed a majority vote for this to pass,” Rohan said. “In terms of people being free or not being free [for the community forum] might have been a misconception.”
Rohan explained that board members returned parents’ phone calls and email, as well as communicated on the district’s website “factual information of how our [teacher] salaries compare to other districts.”
D124 school board member Beth Amado cast the sole vote against the contract, calling it “fiscally irresponsible.”
Amado said she couldn’t support the contract because of current economic conditions, inconsistent and reduced state funding, and the district’s projected budget deficit of $1.2 million over the next two years.
“I believe it is fiscally irresponsible to approve a contract that the district simply cannot afford,” Amado said, as union members sighed in the audience. “This will increase budget deficits and jeopardize our financial good standing. It could also place the current level of staffing and programs in jeopardy.”
After board members ratified the contract (the union ratified it 136-43 earlier this week) Evergreen Park Federations of Teachers co-president Mariellen Newquist was free to talk about the contract’s details.
Teachers would be making up six of the strike days, but missing the state’s 176-day attendance requirement by two days. Originally the school board said that teachers would not be making up strike days, tipped the first work stoppage in the school district's history.
Instead, by docking teachers for two days.
“Certainly you would think that would be a priority that those eight full days be made up from a student’s perspective,” Newquist said. “Taking students out of the classroom for two days out the educational year in response to wanting us docked for two days.”
At the final bargaining session, Newquist said the union's negotiating team just wanted to end the strike and get kids back in school.
“We feel we came in from a ‘zone of possible agreement,’ where you think you’re going to come in with the most fair proposal that you can and get the contract done as quickly as you can,” Newquist said. “We had to work really hard to get our membership back into a situation where we were coming out with some things that we were really trying to just maintain, that [the school board] was trying actually to do away with completely.”
The union’s biggest concession was merit pay, where teachers are rewarded when students meet “measures of academic progress”—educational standards used to assess instructional levels and measure children’s academic growth. Teachers can expect to gain bonuses if classes perform well as a whole on reading and math MAP tests.
However, there was compromise. Newquist said that teachers would take part in the assessment plan and help create parameters of what is considered to be students’ “academic growth.”
“In the end we had to do our best to come up with something the rest of our membership could live with and ratify in order to get this done so our kids could get back in school,” she said.
Asked if she thought Amado’s remarks about an unaffordable teachers contract in the face of projected $1.2 million budget deficits, Newquist said of the district’s infamous “$16 million nest egg”:
“The district came out with surpluses [for] the past five years,” she said. “To me, there has to be fiscal responsibility tied with that as well because this is a non-profit organization. To have those kind of surpluses, why isn’t that money being put back into the school system for whatever the need is for infrastructure and technology.”
The tentative teachers contract will undergo legal review before it is finalized over the next few weeks.
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