Teachers Strike In Evergreen Park

(From Oct. 4, 2012)

The nearly 2,000 students who attend classes in Evergreen Park School District 124 had the day off Tuesday after their teachers went on strike.

Teachers with the Illinois Federation of Teachers Union Local 943 went on strike after a six-hour contract negotiation session that began at 5 p.m. Monday failed to result in a new collective bargaining agreement. Union spokesman Dan Comerford said the district and union are "far apart" on their wants and needs, and no more meetings between the two parties have been scheduled. The district and union have been negotiating since April.

District 124 Superintendent Robert Machak agreed that both sides have "made very little progress" toward a new deal. The two sides are about $1.9 million apart on their final contract offers, according to Machak.

The three primary issues behind the impasse are salaries, health insurance and retirement benefits. Comerford said the union is hoping to come to an agreement on a three-year contract that will include cost of living increases plus raises of less than 1 percent for the first year and 2 percent for the second and third years.

"Our proposals aren't close, but this can be bridged quickly," Comerford said. "It should have never gotten to this point."

The union in April rejected a proposed four-year deal that would have increased teachers' health insurance premiums. The district has a $16.1 million surplus in its budget, money Comerford believes should be put toward teachers and paraprofessionals.

Machak, meanwhile, said the district will need the surplus funds for future building projects and that reaching a new deal is about balance. If more money was put toward salaries less can be allocated for health insurance, and if more was put toward retirement less could be allocated toward insurance, he explained.

At a rally Monday evening, the district's 135 teachers and 70 paraprofessionals, along with several Chicago Public School teachers from Chicago's Beverly and Mount Greenwood neighborhoods, marched and carried signs in support of a strike. The teachers exited Central Junior High School, 9400 S. Sawyer Ave., at about 4 p.m. chanting "We are one" and shouting the need for a fair contract and their support for the union. Several District 124 students and their parents were among those rallying in support of the teachers, and some said they would join the picket line.

Ray Richter, an Evergreen Park resident who has six children in the district, said he supports the strike but wishes his children could stay in school. Richter stood in the bed of a pickup truck and voiced his support through a megaphone.

"This should not be happening to the teachers," Richter said. "If this was the private sector and they tried to cut retirement benefits, someone would go to jail. I don't understand why we're fighting over this. Who else will the district give their money to? That's what it's for - the teachers."

Richter ran for the District 124 school board two years ago, and said that if he were on the board he would have found another way to work out the contract that did not take the students out of school.

"If it were up to me, we'd be negotiating nights, weekends, whatever it takes," he said.

Richter's son, Anthony, 10, is a fifth-grader at Northeast Elementary School.

"I want to still be in school," Anthony said. "If the teachers don't go on strike, we will still get to learn and don't miss our summer break."

Sheila O'Neill, a retired teacher who taught at Northeast Elementary School, said she thinks both sides should do their best for students."

"I think the board has to understand they have excellent teachers," O'Neill said. "We've never gone on strike before. I think they are fighting for what they have, and this is a shame. It's too bad we can't solve this in a friendly way. If there's money there, the teachers and the paraprofessionals deserve it."

Teachers in the district handed out blue ribbons to students, their families and other teachers at the rally. The ribbons will be used to wrap trees in support of the teachers.

Cianna Valdez, 12, was at the rally holding a sign that read "solidarity." A student at Central Junior High, she said she and her mother, Jennifer, will be walking the picket line with their teachers.

"The teachers do fabulous things for their students here, and shouldn't be ignored," Valdez said. "Our teachers - they're really something else."

The district posted a list of family resources Tuesday for community and educational activities and childcare options at Options include the Evergreen Park Library, which has copies of the textbooks for students at all five of the district's schools; as well as the Beverly Arts Center, the Lake Katherine Nature Center and Botanic Garden in Palos Heights, and the Oak Lawn Children's Museum, the latter which is offering discounted admission. The website lists learning resources for children in English and Spanish, and printable worksheets and activities for each grade level from kindergarten through eighth grade.