Possibility of strikes looms at school

Contracts up for Highland teachers, custodians, support staff unions

News LeaderJuly 16, 2014 

Classes are set to start Aug. 13 in the Highland School District, but with labor negotiations with the district’s teachers, custodians and secretarial staff all seemly at impasses, how long students remain in the classroom is uncertain.

The school district’s bargaining team and the Highland Education Association (HEA), the teachers’ union, were scheduled to meet with a federal mediator Tuesday afternoon. It was not known as of the News Leaders’ press time if any progress was made during the mediation.

The district’s bargaining team consists of District Business Manager Tim Bair and School Board members Greg Basler, who has been appointed chief negotiator for the district, Duane Clark and Joyce Serban, who only participates in the contract negotiations when Basler or Clark cannot attend a bargaining session. Both sides have been talking for the past several months with no deal in sight.

The union asked for federal mediation on June 29, after it was unable come to an agreement with the School Board following six meetings, according to Marcus Albrecht, a local Illinois Education Association (IEA) staff representative.

Speaking last week, Albrecht was hopeful a settlement could be reached at the federal mediation hearing, but he wasn’t overly optimistic.

While union members do not want a strike, the move might be necessary, Albrecht said. If a teacher strike occurs, it won’t happen until after Aug. 30, when the teachers’ current three-year contract expires.

Albrecht said the district is currently proposing a “controversial” and “radical proposal” that would drastically impact all 193 Highland teachers, 78 program aids and secretaries, and 26 janitors’ health care benefits.

The Custodial and Maintenance Association (CMA) and the Highland Educational Support Personal Association (HESPA) contracts each expired June 30. Both those unions are also represented by the IEA.

CMA and HESPA have already held several meetings with the district’s bargaining team with little or no progress being made in their talks, according to Albrecht.

Local HEPSA President Tracy Frey said HESPA met Monday with the district’s bargaining team, and made no progress in its negotiations. Both parties, however, agreed to hold another bargaining session on July 31, she said.

CMA was scheduled to meet with the district’s bargaining team on Wednesday.

On Wednesday of last week, Albrecht did not rule out the possibility that the teachers, custodians, secretaries and program aids (teacher aids) could each go one on strike if the school board does budge on its stances.

“That, however, will be a decision that each of the three unions will have to decide,” he said.

Highland Superintendent Mike Sutton is taking a back seat in each of the negotiations. Sutton said last Thursday that he too is concerned the teachers might strike.

“Am I fearful that (the teachers) might strike?… Sure, I am… But, at the same time, we can do only what we can do,” he said.

Contracts end at difficult time

Sutton said it’s no secret that the district has made a significant number of budget cuts in recent years due to a decrease in general state aid funding.

But he believes it would be “financially irresponsible” for the School Board to give all three labor groups a “big chunk” of money now, noting there is still some uncertainty how much the state will fund schools in the upcoming year.

The temporary income tax increase passed by the General Assembly is set to expire at the end of the year. Estimates are that if the tax is not renewed, it would cost the Highland School District around $1 million.

Legislators have also been trying to change the general state aid funding formula. A proposal that made its way through the Senate recently but died in the House would have cost the district more than $40,000.

Besides the uncertainty in school funding, there is also doubt as to whether the state’s new law to fix the pension crisis will be upheld in court. An injunction has also been filed against the state’s new Illinois Pension Code. The goal of the law was to stabilize state pension funds, including that of teachers, and eliminate the system’s unfunded liability by 2044. But its constitutionality has been challenged, and whether it will hold up in court remains unclear. Sutton expects the Illinois Supreme Court will rule on the injunction in the next year.

On top of all that, the district’s current health insurance contract with Coventry is ending Sept. 1, putting another wrinkle in all three contract negotiations. Sutton expects the School Board will select a new health carrier at its meeting on July 28. He said the new insurance premiums are certain to increase. Those premium increases are traditionally paid by employees who take the district’s insurance. The district currently has placed caps on how much it contributes to all of its employees’ health insurance plans.

Fight over salary and benefits

According to Bair, the district’s business manager, if the district awarded a 2 percent pay increase across the board to all employees, it would cost approximately $390,000.

The district currently pays around $19.5 million annually for salaries and benefits, annually, he said.

In June, the School Board agreed to extend Sutton’s contract for another four years. While doing so, the board agreed to give Sutton a pay raise matching whatever the teachers get in their contract negotiations, up to 2 percent. Last year, Sutton’s annual salary was $141,690. He received an additional $31,129 in benefits, bringing his total compensation package to $172,819.

“A new teacher hired in the district, who takes the current family insurance, is paid around $45,000,” Bair said.

On June 23, HESPA sent a newsletter to the Highland secretaries and program assistants, updating them on contract negotiations. The newsletter said the school district is now proposing to pay $4,680 for HESPA’s employee family health insurance.

“Consider this: even if insurance premium rates remain the same next year (which is unlikely) this proposal would result in teacher aides paying from $4,400 to $8,652 in before-tax dollars to maintain their health care for their dependents. This pay would result in some employees working for seven hours per day (174 day per year), and earning an annual gross salary of from $3,772 to $10,324 per year,” the newsletter read.

Frey added: “If the district were to implement this, some employees will decide not to work at all, and many of those who remain will be eligible for Medicare or the Illinois State Children Health Insurance Program.”

Sutton said he has not seen HESPA’s newsletter. However, he believes HESPA comments are a scare tactic.

Does the district have money available to pay for what is being sought by the unions?

The teachers’ union believes the district has enough money their requests.

Local HEA president ShiAnne Shively cited the November 2012 general election as an example, where voters approved a $5 million working cash fund bond issue as a way to avoid the School Board from having to make drastic cuts to the 2013-14 budget

Last June, the board voted to sell $2 million in working cash bonds to help offset the deficit in its education fund. Working cash fund bonds are essentially a form of a short-loan, whereby the district sells the bonds with the principle and interest paid back to the buyers from future tax receipts.

Sutton said the School Board never intended to use these bonds to pay for teacher salaries and benefit packages.

Latest contact struggle

This is just the latest contract struggle between the HEA and School Board. In December 2011, the board voted to approve the district’s current collective bargaining agreement with HEA, bringing an end to the longest contract negotiation in the history of the district.

On the part of the union, Shively said concessions were made in salary, as well as insurance. The teachers accepted the board’s proposal to maintain the current salary schedule, something that the union had been resistant to previously. The agreement also imposed limitations on benefits to future enrollees’ spouses.

Shively said at the time that the insurance proposal was “a huge sticking point” for many of the members, but coming to an agreement and avoiding a work stoppage was enough to push the deal through.

The district agreed to give teachers a step credit for 2010, as well as a credit for each of the following two years. The credits equated to about a 2 percent pay increase per year. Those teachers who had enough experience to be on top of the salary schedule got a 1 percent increase per year.

At that time, Highland teachers had been working without a contract since the beginning of the 2011 school year, and at their Nov. 16, 2011, meeting members voted to file an intent to strike.

In 2008, HEA also filed an intent to strike on Aug. 28, and 15 days later, an agreement was met.

Belleville News-Democrat is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service