Evergreen Park teachers rally as strike possibility looms
BY STEVE METSCH firstname.lastname@example.org September 10, 2012 5:46PM
Mariellen Newquist, left, and Jennifer Knight hug during a rally for their teachers union at Central Junior High School in Evergreen Park, IL on Monday September 11, 2012. Teachers in AFT Local 143 union held the rally in advance of next talks with their school district. A potential strike is looming in Evergreen Park. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 12, 2012 6:15AM
On the day their counterparts in Chicago began a strike, teachers in Evergreen Park School District 124 gathered for a rally because they are seriously considering walking out as well.
About 200 teachers and teacher aides gathered Monday outside Central Junior High School, 9400 S. Sawyer Ave., to show their support for a negotiating team trying to hammer out a contract with the school board.
Negotiations began in April, and Monday’s meeting, which was scheduled to go from 5 to 9 p.m., marked the 17th between the two sides in the five-school, 1,900-student district.
Teachers last week authorized a strike by a 156-2 vote, with about 80 percent of those eligible voting. If there is a strike, it would begin Sept. 28, according to Deneen Pajeau, field service director with the Illinois Federation of Teachers.
The three main issues revolve around salary, insurance benefits and retirement benefits, Pajeau said.
Tony Demma, a member of the teachers’ negotiating team, said this was the sixth time in 15 years district teachers have started a school year without a contract.
“What’s on the table right now is not acceptable,” said Demma, a speech pathologist at Southeast Elementary School.
The district has $16.2 million in its reserve fund, according to its last financial report, so union members believe there’s enough money to cover any pay hikes and benefits, Pajeau said.
“We’re not asking for anything that the district can’t afford. And we’re not asking to spend it all on teachers. Spend it on the students. Spend it on your buildings. They have it,” she said.
To show their solidarity, teachers and aides wore bright blue T-shirts, chanted slogans and held signs that read, “We stand together.”
Donna Cunico, a teacher’s aide at Northeast School, said she wasn’t “quite sure” where the negotiations were heading, but she was pleased by the turnout.
“We need this, absolutely,” she said of the hundreds of union members who stood on the sidewalk facing Central Junior High.
Joey Santor, a physical education teacher at Southeast School, said he was inspired by the striking Chicago schoolteachers.
“Nobody wants to strike. I don’t want to be at home, not being paid. But at the same time, if it’s worth fighting for, you have to be willing to take a stand,” Santor said. “That’s what I was taught.”
Asked to address the issues, Supt. Robert Machak would say only that “compensation is one of them.” But he sounded a hopeful note about negotiations.
“I am very confident we are going to reach an agreement,” he said. “Every time we’ve met, there have been productive conversations on both sides. Both sides seem genuinely concerned in trying to address the needs of the other side. Both sides are willing to sit and talk. That’s a good start.”
During the rally filled with chants and cheers, teachers heard from the negotiating team and chapter co-presidents Mariellen Newquist and Laura Anzelmo. Newquist said the teachers, many of whom live in Evergreen Park, “take pride in offering a quality education.”
“Families move to our community so they can benefit from that education,” Newquist said.
Pat Telander, who is retired after a 40-year career in education, urged the teachers to stand together as one, saying their “hard work and dedication should not go unnoticed.”
“Be proud of your expertise and supportiver of one another. There is strength in numbers,” she said. “I’ve lived here my whole life. You don’t want to lose all the good teachers.”
Her daughter, Elizabeth Schmitz, showed up wearing a red T-shirt indicative of her being one of the striking Chicago Public Schools teachers.
Schmitz, who lives in Chicago’s Mount Greenwood community, teaches at Healy Elementary in the city. She said she attended Monday’s rally in Evergreen Park to show her support.
“I couldn’t make it downtown, so I thought I’d come out here. Teachers in any district all over, we should stay strong, work together and support each other, no matter where they are from,” she said. “We don’t want to be on strike. We want to be in school with the kids. But we still need a fair contract.”