Update: Today, Wednesday, the Mendota teachers announced they would strike beginning at 8:30 a.m. Further updates will be available at www.newstrib.com and in tonight's NewsTribune.
MENDOTA — The crowd burst into applause around 5 p.m. Tuesday as Brandon Scheppers and Rachel Sabin walked into Mendota Elementary’s district offices hoping to come out with a new teachers’ contract.
Beth Rich is among the parents and teachers with fingers tightly crossed they’ll succeed before Mendota faculty take to the picket lane Wednesday morning.
“I’m worried they won’t get a settlement,” Rich admitted.
If the Mendota Education Association doesn’t get a new contract it won’t be for lack of public support. Despite a Spartan home game inside the Northbrook School gymnasium, the sidewalks outside were crowded with many onlookers — 160, by one estimate — clad in red and/or wearing wristbands expressing solidarity with the teachers.
Veronica Becker was among the Mendota parents who walked with her children in support of a still-fluid proposal to boost pay and temper the teachers’ share of insurance premiums. Asked if she was concerned with a tax hike, particularly in light of Del Monte’s closing, Becker dismissed any talk of putting finances ahead of the teachers.
“No, it’s not a concern,” Becker said. “Education absolutely comes first and everyone should think that way.”
That was music to the ears of teachers who were glad for the show of community support, even as they expressed uncertainty of a contract.
“I’m very excited by the size of the crowd,” teacher Geina Parks observed gratefully, expressing her hope that district officials will note the crowd and yield some ground at the bargaining table.
With a picket line hours away, that looks like a less-than-sure bet.
The school board said the two sides are close on one issue: A base increase. The board’s offer on Oct. 1 included a 4% base raise in the first year of the contract, followed by 4.5% increases in the second and third years of the contract.
But the two sides are further apart on individual increases — earned for years served and continuing education — and on teacher retirement system (TRS) contributions and contributions toward health care premiums.
Jeri Atherton is a retired Mendota High School teacher who showed up Tuesday both to support her junior colleagues and to drive home a point to district officials: Compensation has to be competitive or the quality of education will suffer.
Atherton said the district had three unfilled posts and that one job that was filled drew just two applicants. Societal changes have suppressed the number of teaching candidates and Mendota can’t compete for teachers unless the compensation improves.
“Teachers are getting hard to find — period,” Atherton said.
The rally drew other parents and teachers including a few from school districts to the south. Julie Jenkins and Brian Pett from the Peru and La Salle education associations, respectively, made it a point to show up and stand with their colleagues.
“And I think we want better things for all the teachers in the area,” Pett said.
A strike may be looming but Parks is among those hoping to avoid it. She walked out the last time Mendota teachers voted to strike and was unhappy when it spilled into two weeks.
“We’re very hopeful,” she said of current negotiations. “We want to stay in the classroom.”
Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or TCollins@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_Court.