Kadner: Evergreen Park SD124 teachers talk ‘fair contract’ on picket line
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org October 10, 2012 5:38PM
Mark Reiner, a teacher at Northwest School in Evergreen Park, offers musical support for teachers prior to tonights negotiating session with the SD 124 school board. | Larry Ruehl~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 12, 2012 11:57AM
Ask anyone on the picket line outside Central Junior High School in Evergreen Park why they’re on strike and they’ll tell you “It’s about a fair contract.”
In fact, the words were parroted so often, it seemed fair to wonder whether anyone knew what they meant.
“What do you mean?” I was asked in response to my question.
“What do you mean by a fair contract?” I repeated.
It took some time, but eventually I got a few answers.
Members of the Evergreen Park Federation of Teachers, who have been on strike since Oct. 2, want some minimal pay raises, but most of all want to preserve their retirement and health insurance benefits.
About 150 teachers and support staff manned the picket line along 95th Street, near the junior high, Wednesday morning.
The strike affects 1,800 students at four elementary schools and one junior high.
Cars and trucks passing the picket line repeatedly honked their horns in support of the union.
I encountered what seemed like an extraordinary number of picketers who identified themselves as “paraprofessionals.”
“Sort of a teacher’s assistant,” I was told.
Exactly what do you do?
“Assist the teacher.”
You would hope that people involved in education might be a little more, well, educational.
After a few more questions, I discovered that most of the paraprofessionals I encountered were assisting special-education students.
“I give personal, one-on-one instruction to kids who need special help,” Marty Mulchrone said.
Mulchrone told me that at $11.37 an hour, he hardly earns a living,
The school board, he said, is offering an increase of 75 cents an hour. The union is seeking a $1-an-hour wage increase.
In addition, Mulchrone said, the paraprofessionals contribute a portion of their salaries to pay for health insurance, and that would increase substantially under a plan proposed by the school board.
Melanie Senerchia, another paraprofessional who earns $12.93 an hour, said her take-home pay after deductions would potentially be reduced to $60 a week under the board’s plan.
“Fortunately, I don’t need health insurance for my family because my husband works, thank God,” Senerchia said.
“But there are other paraprofessionals whose husbands have lost their jobs and they need the insurance.”
Sherrie Sabbath, a sixth-grade teacher, contends teachers in the district earn less on average than those in neighboring suburban school districts.
“And 87 percent of our teachers have master’s degrees, which should skew the numbers higher,” Sabbath said.
Sabbath said she lives in Evergreen Park and put five children through the school system.
“We know that the people here want quality schools and many of them moved here for that reason,” she said.
“The district has an operating surplus of more than $19 million, and that’s tax money residents paid for their schools. We’re saying that money was intended to benefit the school system, not sit in a savings account somewhere collecting interest.”
The school board is asking teachers to contribute more to their pensions and pay more for health insurance.
It seems the school board is trying to reduce its long-term costs in anticipation of changes by the Legislature that could, among other things, shift the state’s share of pension payments to local school districts.
“We understand that and offered to extend our current contract by a year so that the board could see if Springfield enacted any of those changes,” Sabbath said. “But the school board refused. That’s why we’re out here today.”
I think fiscal conservatives would contend the school board is trying to behave in a financially responsible manner.
There’s a growing movement to end teacher pensions, replace automatic step raises with merit pay hikes and eliminate school district-covered health insurance premiums for teachers who retire.
The union members I spoke to believe the board has failed to negotiate in good faith and that teachers have been more than willing to make concessions.
Tony Demma, a speech pathologist in the school district and a member of the union negotiating team, said, “We’re only looking for a fair contract.”
Has any union member ever said he was looking for an “unfair contract?”
Indeed, the union’s salary demands at this point don’t seem extravagant.
They’re proposing a “soft freeze” in the first year of the contract, a 3 percent increase in the second year and another soft freeze in the third year, plus a 1 percent bonus that would not be applied to salaries.
A “soft freeze” means that step increases for teachers would continue, although the initial union demand seemed to include pay hikes beyond those soft freezes.
Another sticking point is apparently salary increases for teachers approaching retirement.
Traditionally, school districts increase retiring teachers’ pay dramatically over the final few years to sweeten their pensions.
School District 124 apparently doesn’t want to follow tradition.
“People don’t understand that we don’t get Social Security,” Demma said. “Teachers rely on their small pensions for retirement.”
Labor negotiations continued Wednesday evening.
Parents in the district seem to be supporting the teachers.
It’s strange that although people constantly complain about their property tax bills, they often side with teachers during strikes. Perhaps they don’t connect the two.
“We pay for the schools and the money is there to educate our kids,” one parent told me. “It seems to us that the school board forced these teachers out on strike although they had the money in the budget to pay them.”
Keeping students out of school never makes sense. But that’s a lesson that no one seems to remember.