September 3, 2014

Strike looms: Highland teachers, board more than $700,000 apart

Teachers in Highland are on the verge of going on strike after six months of failed negotiations for a new contract. The district's superintendent says the teachers' request is "unrealistic" and would cripple current programs.

According to the Illinois Education Association, 97 percent of teachers in District 5 have voted to authorize a strike.

More negotiations with a federal mediator are set for this weekend. But, if they fail, union members could vote as early as next week to set a strike date.

Teachers say they haven't received a raise in four years and that the district wants to cut their health care program.

Highland Superintendent Mike Sutton said in a news release the school board proposes an increase of about $23,600 in spending for salaries and related benefits. The union proposes an increase in spending of $765,342.

"The current request by the HEA to increase spending in salaries and benefits by over 6 percent, or $765,342, is unrealistic and would create a deficit that would cripple our ability to maintain current staffing and programs," Sutton said.

The union's proposal increases the cost for health insurance by about $159,700 while the board's proposal increases the cost by about $11,000, according to Sutton.

Highland Education Association president ShiAnne Shively said the union and the district's bargaining team plan to meet with a federal mediator at least one more time. Both sides have met with mediator on three other occasions, previously.

"We will have to wait for (the mediator) to contact us," she said.

In the meantime, Shively said the teachers are preparing for a work stoppage.

"I'm grateful for the strong direction and the support from our membership has shown," Shively said. "Our members have shown they are determined to be treated fairly. After I announced the strike vote, one teacher stood up and said, 'Well, I guess you don't need any more direction than that.' Everybody was just relieved and grateful for the strong support the vote made clear."

If they were to walk out, it would be the first teachers' strike in the history of the district. Highland teachers did threaten to go on strike in two most recent contract negotiations. However, those disputes were settled without any days of school being missed.

According to documents filed with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, the parties appear to be $741,693 apart in their latest proposal.

Sutton said $2 million in working cash bonds issued in 2013 are intended to offset operating deficits created by reductions in revenue. The district anticipates losing another $400,000 in revenue this school year.

"If the district chooses to use these dollars to pay for increased salaries and benefits, it would only add to our deficit," Sutton said. "The results would be additional reductions in staff and programs. There is no revenue source to assist in making up this difference."

The school board has maintained its position on a hard freeze, Shively said on Thursday of last week.

"We are disappointed it has come to this," she said. "A compromise was possible. No teacher wants to strike, but by its unreasonable demands, the school board is forcing us to do so."

Sutton said the board recognizes the quality and effort from the classroom teachers and certified staff, and would much rather approve modest increases to reward these efforts but finances do not allow for this discretion.

"The key to our financial stability is to balance our current revenues with our current spending," Sutton said.

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