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Mendota strike continues, negotiations fizzle

Grade school board, union differ on multitude of items

MENDOTA — As of Sunday night, it appeared that Mendota’s public grade schools will remain closed through Wednesday, and the Mendota teachers’ strike that started last week will last for at least eight days.

Contract negotiations stalled after about two hours Saturday, and the Mendota Grade School Board refused to meet Sunday with the striking teachers’ union members.

Both sides previously had said they were willing to meet all weekend so about 1,100 students and 76 union teachers can return to classes.

The Mendota Education Association held a rally at Strouss Park (aka ‘purple park’) near the municipal pool just after noon Sunday, and received overwhelming support from the community, says union co-president Rachel Sabin.

Sabin said teachers scheduled the rally to pressure the board to meet so teachers and students can return to the classroom.

However, an email from the board’s attorney, Jim Bartley, to the Illinois Education Association’s regional UniServ director, Stacie Walton, asserted that the union rejected three offers from the board. He said the board would not meet on Sunday unless the teachers agreed to move off of demands for annual 4.5% increases in salary schedule portion of the contract for the next three years or unless the board accepted a one-year offer with a 4.5% increase in the salary schedule and then agreed to continue negotiations of the second and third years of the contract.

What was the response of the union members when they learned the board would not meet Sunday?

“Our members are extremely disappointed that we can’t get them back to the table to get this worked out,” Sabin said Sunday. “Our students could have been back in class tomorrow (Monday) if they chose to meet with us today.”

How did the union take the board’s demand?

Sabin said: “We’re puzzled as to their interpretation of how negotiations work, and I think that would be a question for them. We’re willing to have a give and take, but we have to get back to the table in order for this to happen. We also do not like the idea of taking their one-year deal. … That gets us back in the classroom, but that still is held over our heads and we’re not able to focus on our kids, which is where (the focus) should be in the first place. … Let’s get a three-year deal resolved so we can get back in the classroom and do our job.”

What’s the board’s position?

Board president Sean Pappas said the board made three proposals to the union on Saturday, and on all of those, he said, the teachers refused to yield on their demands of 4.5% pay increases over the base salary in each step in terms of tenure and training on the salary schedule. Those increases, says Pappas, are on top of annual salary increases.

Pappas on Sunday said he has seen social media posts and heard teachers saying the salary schedule percentages desired by the union would only cost the district about $16,000. He said that particular cost to the district is more like $180,000.

Since salaries for starting teachers in the district will be going up, due to negotiations and state-mandated minimums, the district cannot afford to continue paying percentage increases over the base salary year after year in the three-year contract, Pappas said.

He said the board needs the MEA and negotiator for IEA to scale back their demands for increases in the salary schedule. The board ideally wants to use dollar figures rather than percentages, because the percentages could cause teachers’ salaries to increase at “unsustainable” proportions.

Why didn’t the board show up for the meeting Sunday?

“Unless they are going to move off of the 4% increment, it’s kind of futile to meet,” Pappas said Sunday.

Sabin responded, “The 4.5% is what we currently have. We are trying to maintain that, at the table, and they are trying to diminish it,”

How can the board and union get a meeting scheduled?

“From what we understand,” said Sabin, “the mediator has reached out to both Stacie (Walton, IEA negotiator) and Mr. Bartley (board attorney), and said that he is clearing his schedule for this week and can be available at any time. The association responded that we are willing to meet at any time, any day, starting at 8 a.m. in the morning if they would like. Right before the rally, we got word that the board is not willing to meet until Wednesday, Oct. 23.”

She said the board also is willing to meet during evening hours.

Did the MEA members feel like the board conceded any ground at all on the proposals on Saturday?

“Their proposals were simply resubmissions of what we saw at Tuesday’s session,” said Sabin. “They just presented them differently.”

How did Saturday’s session go?

“Not very well,” replied Brandon Scheppers, Mendota Education Association co-president and seventh-grade social studies teacher.

Saturday’s session took place at Mendota High School, a neutral location chosen by the school board. On Sunday, the teachers’ union proposed a negotiation session at 1 p.m. at their chosen site, St. John’s Lutheran Church.

Saturday afternoon, Scheppers promised that the union members would “be there at the church to meet at 1 p.m., ready to bargain, whether they’re there or not.”

From Scheppers’ perspective, he says the board gave the teachers a take-it-or-leave-it proposal on Saturday: “Either we accept their offer, we reduce our salary schedule, we come to work on Monday without a contract or (the board) won’t meet,”

Pappas, on the other hand, says the board offered the teachers proposals of one-year, two-year and three-year contracts on Saturday, and the board also offered to continue to meet and negotiate if the teachers accepted the one-year proposal. (The board proposals were posted at newstrib.com and the Mendota District 289 website.)

However, Scheppers says the first proposal the board gave to the union Saturday morning was the same as the board’s offer on Tuesday.

Scheppers said the board yielded minimally in what it was offering to the teachers, but they still disagree on the main sticking points including the salary schedule, how much the teachers need to pay for family members’ insurance premiums and retirement costs.

“They didn’t address any language issues,” Scheppers added, referring to disputes including recess-observation requirements, whether recess duty is an obligation for which teachers should be paid, and exactly how the contract would grant planning time for teachers during the school day.

Scheppers said he and the MEA are willing to meet to negotiate anytime, but also are willing to stay out on strike, “as long as it takes to do what’s right for our students and do what’s right for our schools.”

Scheppers said the teachers are striking to help the district not only attract but to retain teachers for the good of the students.

“That’s what it’s all about is trying to get good teachers to stay at Mendota,” Scheppers said.

IEA spokesman Bridget Shanahan said it was “disheartening” that the board left the negotiations Saturday without agreeing for certain to meet on Sunday and without agreeing to any definite bargaining session times or locations.

“It’s pretty hard to start school again when the board will not negotiate,” Shanahan said.

Hot over a hotline?

Shanahan reiterated that the MEA set up a telephone hotline parents and the community could use for asking questions of the school board, inquiring about when their children will return to school, or to express support for teachers.

Shanahan said the hotline received 100 calls or more, and those are directed to the district office.

As evidence of the active use of the hotline, Shanahan said the attorney for the school board emailed the MEA, requesting that they deactivate the hotline, as the calls were tying up school district lines.

Why did the union propose a meeting at a Lutheran church?

Prior to the Mendota teachers’ strike beginning Wednesday morning, negotiations took place at Northbrook School, the middle school that houses the district office and most board meetings.

“We’re not allowed on school property due to the strike, so we’ve got to find an alternate location,” said Scheppers, as he and fellow MEA members Jordan Zoelzer, Ashley Lamps and Sabin prepared to enter Mendota High School for negotiations Saturday morning.

Pappas said the board actually would welcome the teachers’ union negotiators onto school property for bargaining sessions, but the teachers don’t want to cross the picket line they have established.

Prior to Saturday’s negotiation session, Pappas expressed concern that the teachers already were talking about where to meet on Sunday. Pappas said he wondered how serious the teachers were about reaching an agreement if they were planning a rally prior to negotiations Sunday.

Friday evening, board president Pappas confirmed that the board had to turn down a couple of MEA proposed meeting times late last week because the board could not get enough representatives to meet at those times. He said at least one or two board members, in addition to him, need to be present for the bargaining sessions.

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

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