Possible strike looms over EP schools
By Steve Metsch firstname.lastname@example.org September 21, 2012 8:46PM
Maggie Babic, a student at Southwest Elementary School, waves goodbye to schoolmates while standing with her dad, Pete Babic, at the school in Evergreen Park, IL on Thursday, September 20, 2012. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 24, 2012 6:29AM
On the heels of a bitter teachers strike in Chicago, teachers in Evergreen Park School District 124 are not averse to hitting the bricks.
They may strike as early as Friday if contract negotiations under way since April fail to reach an agreement. The last bargaining session was Sept. 10. The next sessions are at 5 p.m. Monday and Wednesday, District 124 Supt. Robert Machak said.
In an open letter to parents, Machak says “plans are being made to keep our students safe and accounted for during (a strike’s) duration.” He declined to be more specific, saying, “I hope we never need these plans.”
He also wrote that parents could use “grade-level websites” to home school their children if there’s a strike.
According to the district’s website, the school board has offered a four-year contract while the Evergreen Park Federation of Teachers seeks a three-year deal. The board is offering pay raises, based on the Consumer Price Index, with bonuses based on student test scores.
The teachers want increases of at least 3 percent each year and are against bonuses based on scores.
The board proposes using the CPI to determine annual raises for teacher aides and other support staff, while the union wants raises of 30.7 percent and 24.6 percent, respectively, for those employees over three years.
District 124 aides and secretaries are “significantly underpaid for the area,” said Deneen Pajeau, field services director for the Illinois Federation of Teachers.
As for insurance benefits,
the board would eliminate contributions to health reimbursement accounts while the teachers want a slight increase in the contributions.
The union has made some concessions regarding retirement, agreeing that 20 years rather than the current 15 should be the minimum for an employee to be eligible for benefits. Other details on each side’s position can be found at www.d124.org, the district’s website.
Pajeau said the district makes enough in interest ($384,000 last year) off its $16.1 million in reserves to cover the costs of the teachers’ proposals, but Machak said the reserves are intended to pay for improvements to schools.
“The union maintains we have all these reserves we don’t want to use, but each year for the last four or five the district has anticipated operating at a deficit. We manage to revise plans, make changes and not be in a deficit by the end of each school year,” Machak, who joined the district July 1, said.
Dave Comerford, a spokesman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said the negotiations are about District 124 “staying competitive in the area” regarding compensation.
Pajeau said the sides are “not too far off” on salary, but teachers are frustrated with having started a school year without a contract for the sixth time in 15 years.
A flier being circulated in the school district — urging people to sign a petition for the union at www.facebook.com/EPFT124 — says District 124’s average teacher salary of $62,875 is less than that in districts in Orland Park, Chicago, Oak Lawn, Hometown and Palos Park.
The starting salary for a teacher in District 124 is approximately $37,000, the flier says.
Hearing the sides argue over pay is hard to stomach for Pete Babic, the parent of 6-year-old Maggie, a first-grader at Southwest Elementary School.
“Look at the economy. There’s people out of work who don’t make anywhere near what teachers make. I was a real estate appraiser. The economy tanked, and now I’m driving a bus for half of what I used to make,” said Babic, who drives for Pace suburban bus system out of its Alsip garage.
“It’s a good job, a fun job. I’m grateful for it,” he said. “I can sympathize with the teachers, most definitely, but where’s all the money going? Our taxes keep going up. Supposedly there’s money in the school budget (for raises).”
He said Maggie will stay with her grandparents in Elgin for the strike’s duration.
“I can’t stay home. I’d lose my job,” Babic said. “What are we supposed to do? My wife works. I cannot take time off. I’m the new guy, and I have to work every hour I can get.”
All smiles while leaving school Thursday, Maggie said she would miss her teacher and classmates in the first grade.
“I like learning,” she said.
The father of two children at Southwest School, Bradley Rahm, 43, said he would have to take time off if there’s a strike. Hannah, 12, and Nolan, 9, are too young to leave alone, he said.
“My wife is working. She makes more than I do, so I’ll take off. My boss is relatively flexible, but how flexible can you be?” said Rahm, a photographer for a company that specializes in school class photos. “It will definitely affect our household. The income is going to take a hit. I hope they can settle.”
A strike won’t be a hardship for stay-at-home mom Karen Goodwill, who has a third-grade daughter at the school. But she worries that the school year will stretch well into summer with a long walkout.
“I just wish it would go away,” she said.
A substitute teacher, Irene Summers picks up grandchildren Suzy, 5, and Matthew, 9, from school several times a week for her son and daughter-in-law. She said she may find herself teaching them at home if there’s a strike.
Southwest fifth-grader Cara Flaherty, 10, said she doesn’t want teachers to strike “because we’ll have less time for summer vacation, and I want to be with my family. I’d miss my friends. I like Southwest because school is important to me and I have lots of close friends there.”
Her mother, Alice Flaherty, also opposes the strike.
“I love our teachers. They’re a wonderful group of people,” she said. “I hope everybody makes a compromise because the kids are going to suffer if they go on strike. ... There needs to be honest dialogue where the teachers feel they’re ... being respected. But the board has to look out for the property owners, too.”
Machak said “both sides have an obligation to these children. The only way to meet that obligation, whatever differences the adults have, is to sit down and work through them.”