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Teachers may strike Tuesday in Evergreen

Area entities ready to accomodate displaced youths

By Laura Bollin

Contract negotiations between Evergreen Park School District 124 and the union that represents the district’s teachers are at a stalemate, and the teachers are prepared to strike Tuesday morning if the impasse is not resolved.

The two sides have been negotiating for a new contract since April 27, with the main divisive issues being salaries, insurance and retirement benefits. The next planned meeting is at 5 p.m. Monday, Oct. 1.

District 124 Superintendent Robert Machak said negotiations have not been going well.

The two camps met for five and a half hours Wednesday and made “very little progress,” Machak said.

“The board and the union can’t seem to come to an agreement,” he added. “From the district’s perspective, it’s all about the money they can contribute to compensation. If this district puts more money into insurance plans, that’s less money that can be put into salaries. If we put more into salaries, that’s less money that can go into retirement.”

The district wants to allocate compensation or benefits within the limits of the district’s revenue, which it plans to tie to the consumer price index, Machak said.

“That’s apparently unacceptable to the union,” he added.

The school board is trying to find a balance between what it believes is fair for the teachers, while having a responsibeing obligated to be fiscally responsible with taxpayers’ money, Machak explained. The district is also preparing funding for capital projects in all five district schools, Machak said.

“We have water pipes at Central Junior High that are 85 years old, and those need to be replaced,” he said.

Teacher’s union spokesperson Deneen Pajeau said union members believe some of the $16.1 million in the district’s reserves should be used for increases in teacher salaries and health benefits.

“Insurance is the top one for us,” Pajeau said.

The different plan would be through an insurance cooperative. It is a high deductible account for insurance and allows teachers to manage their own healthcare plans, rather than pay co-payments at a doctor’s office.

“It shifts a lot of costs onto the employees,” Pajeau said. “For example, the insurance company would negotiate a price with the medical provider for an X-ray. Instead of being $100, the negotiated price is $80. Instead of a $20 co-pay, the employee is responsible for that $80.”

Pajeau said if an agreement is not reached Monday night, the teachers are prepared to strike Tuesday morning.

If they do, local entities including the Evergreen Park Public Library, and St. Bernadette School in Evergreen Park Lak

Katherine Nature Center and Botanic Garden in Palos Heights, and Beverly Arts Center in Chicago are mobilizing to help students who will be displaced until the matter is resolved.

The library, 9400 Troy Ave., offers the same textbooks District 124 students use. Library director Nikki Seidl said librarians will be encouraging kids to keep up with their work. 

“We have all the textbooks and workbooks, so they can get ahead in their textbooks and try something different,” Seidl said. “We also have the accelerated reader database, which will help them find books appropriate to their reading level.

Seidl said the library had a taste of what a strike might look like when Chicago Public Schools went on strike in September. 

“Parents came in with their kids, and were using us as a bridge while the kids were out of school,” Seidl said.

The library is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. 

“Kids can have a productive experience, but still be out of the house.”

For more out of the house activities, kids can head to Lake Katherine Nature Center and Botanic Garden in Palos Heights, where director Gareth Blakesley said the nature center will be open. Children can come with their parents or caregivers and learn about the natural world.

“We have frogs, snakes, and salamanders, so kids can learn about what is around them,” Blakesley said. “We have gardens outside, like the heritage garden, where kids can learn about where vegetables come from. We also have prairie and wetland restoration work that we are doing. We want kids to come and explore. There is a whole movement called no child left inside, about getting kids outside and learning just by being in a place.”

The nature center, at 7402 W. Lake Katherine Drive in Palos Heights, is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Lake Katherine’s grounds are open from dawn until dusk. 

St. Bernadette’s School, 9311 S. Francisco Ave. in Evergreen Park, will allow students from District 124 to participate in its before-school and after-school care programs, Machak said.