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Can mediator prevent teachers' strike at Mendota?

Mendota public school teachers wearing red shirts attended a packed board meeting on Wednesday.
Mendota public school teachers wearing red shirts attended a packed board meeting on Wednesday.

MENDOTA — In a show of strength and unity, about 50 teachers crowded into the boardroom for Wednesday’s Mendota Grade School Board meeting.

The teachers’ union filed an intent-to-strike notice at the beginning of September, and the same teachers along with the representatives of their union plan to show up outside of Northbrook Elementary School again this evening prior to a meeting with a federal mediator. The parties scheduled another mediation session for Oct. 1, if needed. The board could strike on Oct. 16 unless mediation produces an agreement.

Mendota Grade School Board and Mendota Education Association agree on one thing: They’re far apart on negotiations over how much the district should contribute for their retirement and insurance premiums.

“For several years we have taken minimal to no salary increases with the understanding that the board was struggling financially,” union co-president Rachel Sabin said after Wednesday’s meeting. “Now that the district is financially solid — they received the top financial rating from the state last year — we want to attract the best teachers and we want to keep the best teachers.”

Sabin said the district has had a high turnover rate of teachers coming and going, and if the board provided a greater contribution to salary and the Teachers Retirement System payments for staff, it would be easier to keep good teachers here.

Board president Sean Pappas said for a teacher with a salary of $50,000 a year, the district is paying 2% or $1,000 and the teachers are paying 7 percent or about $3,500 of what goes into the Teachers Retirement System. In Illinois, public school teachers do not pay in to Social Security, so the system generally serves as their most-prominent source of retirement income.

However, Pappas said the district pays most of the teachers’ health insurance premiums. The teachers are paying only about 14% of their health insurance premiums for family insurance (10 percent of the premium for single insurance), he said.

The board has offered to increase its contribution to the pension system to 3 percent of the cost with teachers paying 6%, but the union is asking the district to pay 6 percent of the pension cost.

Pappas produced a chart showing that districts such as La Salle, Marseilles and Ottawa elementary districts pay the complete share, 9%, into the TRS and those districts pay 100 percent of insurance premiums. However, those same districts do not contribute toward teachers’ family members’ insurance premiums.

The board and teachers agree on the district paying 90 percent of individual employee insurance premium. The district offers to pay 84 percent of the premium for family members, too. With insurance premiums for an employee costing about $22,000, says Pappas, the district contribution toward insurance is worth much more than contributions to TRS.

The teachers are requesting, says Pappas, that the district pay 85 percent of family members’ premiums.

“There’s a tradeoff: If you’re going to increase the (contribution to) TRS, you have to have an increase in what teachers put in for insurance,” Pappas said

Pappas said there also is a salary issue for the board and union to settle, but “we’re not too far apart on that.”

Sabin, however, said the two sides disagree on the salary schedule. She said the union is seeking a continuation of a “4.5-by-4.5” increase per step up the education and experience scale, but the board wants that at 3.99. The percentages in the steps up are calculated in relation to the base salary for a beginning teacher. If the scale changed to 3.99-by-3.99, Sabin contends teachers would, in effect, see progressively smaller increases as they made advancements.

The union took issue this month when the board said they were asking for a 10 percent increase in compensation costs.

MEA co-president Brandon Scheppers, a seventh-grade social studies teacher, said the district came up with that 10-percent figure because the board included the combined cost of salaries and district TRS contributions to arrive at that number.

He also said school districts are trying to report combined salary and benefits to show that they can meet the $40,000 minimum wage for teachers that the state of Illinois is phasing in by 2023. Gov. JB Pritzker signed legislation this summer to establish that requirement.

The union also takes issue with the board reporting the cost of a starting teacher at $53,500. The starting salary at Mendota currently is $31,120, said Sabin.

Figures in a chart distributed by the board Wednesday reported combined salary, TRS and “employer cost of family insurance” at Mendota at $53,500 for a beginning teacher, $72,330 for a teacher with a master’s degree on “Step 10” and $82,469 for a master’s+24 at Step 14.

Pappas said those figures show Mendota currently has the fourth-highest compensation package in comparison with neighboring districts that ranked as follows, No. 1, Mendota High School; 2, Streator Elementary; 3, Princeton Elementary; 5, Ottawa Elementary; 6, Peru; 7, Oglesby; 8, La Salle; 9, Marseilles and 10, Earlville.

“Respectfully,” Pappas said, giving a formal statement to the press as teachers filed out of the boardroom, “we are providing the union with a comparable salary for the area, with the best available benefits that have an ever-lasting effect on the teachers and their families.

“Health benefits are some of the most sought-after and expensive portions of a salary, and with that (family-insurance) benefit, that is what makes us equal to the rest of the districts,” Pappas said. “Districts that offer 9 percent TRS, they either offer less than 50 percent on family (insurance premiums) or they don’t offer family insurance at all. So we’re offering something that’s much more expensive than a TRS payment.”

School board member Theresa Komitas, who has been a communications director in the Oswego schools, said, “Some of us also share a career in education and are really dedicated to trying to come out with the best overall solution to our negotiations.

“It’s a very difficult spot to be in, because, given the opportunity, all of us would give you the world,” said Komitas. “But on the other hand, as elected officials with taxpayer dollars, it’s difficult to make sure we’re being responsible financial stewards of those dollars and allocating them in a way that is deemed appropriate. I don’t want it to be perceived as a firm line in the sand and an us-and-them situation, because we very much value all that you do and that’s why we volunteer to be part of this district.”

Parent of 2 students stands with teachers, questions turnover

Veronica Becker, a parent of two students currently enrolled at Blackstone school, rose from among the crowd of teachers at Wednesday’s meeting to address the school board. Becker said she appreciates what the teachers have done to help her children show growth. “I’m so grateful for the teachers that they’ve had in their lives and I want them to continue to have,” She said she thought the teachers are not paid enough, the district has had too much turnover of teachers. School board president Sean Pappas said based on the state report card, Mendota District 289 had an 87% teacher-retention rate and the state average is 85. “So, it’s fine that over the past few years, we’ve had like nine teachers that have left?” Becker asked. “It’s not fine,” Pappas said. “We had eight teachers leave this year for early retirement. Two were not tenured...” Becker said she has seen too many parents taking students out of the public schools and sending them to Holy Cross for middle school. She provided a figure of two dozen students being taken out of the schools, but not all of them left Northbrook for Holy Cross. Pappas said almost 20 of those went away with parents moved on for other jobs after working to build the ADM flour mill. When Becker continued to ask if there were issues at Northbrook School, Pappas said anything pertaining to personnel could not be discussed in public session.

Craig Sterrett can be reached at (815) 220-6935 or csterrett@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_NewsEditor.

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