East St. Louis teachers strike; district will bus students in for meals

Teachers went on strike Thursday in East St. Louis School District 189, and the two sides appeared poised for a protracted stalemate.

For example, administrators announced plans to bus the district’s roughly 6,100 students in to schools during the strike, so they can be fed breakfast and given a take-home lunch.

Starting Friday, students are to be bused in to their respective school buildings for breakfast, then given a take-home lunch.

Under federal rules, every student in the poverty-stricken district is eligible for free lunch.

Superintendent Art Culver said the move was prompted by concern that the students might not eat nutritious food during the strike. He said students would be at their schools for one hour for the meals.

“Starting Friday, we will provide students with transportation,” Culver said.

The district covers grades prekindergarten through 12.

Breakfast will start at 9:30 a.m. at all elementary schools. It will start at 8 a.m. at middle and high school buildings. Students will be dismissed and begin arriving home at 11:30 a.m. from the elementary schools and 10 a.m from the middle and high schools.

“We must provide safe and secure environments for all of our students,” Culver said.

He said parents will need to arrange their own transportation for Vivian Adams Early Learning Center and Miles Davis Kindergarten. The district didn’t provide transportation for prekindergarten students even before the strike. Culver said the district won’t provide transportation for kindergarten students because there aren’t enough staff available to help handle those children.

He also said organizations throughout the community are providing extended programming hours and daily meals. The district posted information about them on the district’s website,

For those who can get to Lessie Bates Neighborhood House, Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center, Mary Brown Center or SIUE Upward Bound, lunches will be provided there. The district also was talking to New Life Evangelistic Center about providing lunch for students.

Sharon Crockett, president of the teacher union, Local 1220, said she is happy that students will be getting fed because she understands that many of them only get to eat meals provided by the district. But she said she’s concerned about who will be dealing with the students and whether they’ve undergone background checks and drug tests.

No one knows how many days East St. Louis teachers and support staff will be on the picket lines, and the students out of the classrooms. Teachers stood together Thursday to man the picket lines.

Culver said the district’s negotiating team put forth a tentative agreement that was signed by union officials and was to be recommended to the Local 1220 members. He described it as a fair and equitable agreement.

Crockett said Culver knows there’s a process that has to be followed before any final agreement can be ratified. She said the district’s tentative agreement was overwhelmingly voted down by the union body Tuesday evening.

Culver posted the agreement and additional documents on the district’s website hoping that once the teachers and support staff had a chance to read them they would want to reconsider and vote again. He said some teachers have communicated to him that they do want to vote again after seeing the documents.

Dave Comerford, legislative director for the the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said, “It is unfortunate that Superintendent Culver is assuming his employees didn’t understand the proposal they were presented with.

“Mr. Culver was not in the room to hear the debate, but if he had been, he would have no doubt that our members spoke passionately against his proposal and then they voted overwhelmingly against it,” he said.

Comerford said the money teachers were making in 11 years will now take new teachers 21 years to earn. That is a huge sticking point for the teachers and their union, he said.

“The district is insisting on proposals that would decrease the pay of new teachers and staff over their entire career. Their demand would double the amount of time it would take for a new teacher to receive the same amount of pay included in the last contract,” Comerford said. “The district can’t afford to take another step backwards. The administration’s unnecessary demands will only make it harder to bring quality teachers and staff to District 189.”

Culver said the district has to be fiscally responsibly and it can not sustain raises higher than those in the tentative agreement. He said each teacher would receive a 2.6 percent increase and get a $2,000 stipend for last year. There are no changes in health insurance or classroom sizes.

Comerford and Crockett say the district can afford to pay the increase teachers want. The teachers have been working without a contract for three years.

“The district can afford to accept our proposal and invest in teachers and staff. At the end of FY 2014, the district had a $5 million surplus,” Comerford said. “The district’s fund balances have increased each year for the past five years. Just last year, the district had an extra $6 million they put in the bank. All of these figures can be verified by documents the district filed with the Illinois State Board of Education.”

Comerford said, “Our proposal would expire in 2018, less than three years from now. There is no long-term commitment for the district and we believe it would be in even better shape than it is today.”

He also said the union doesn’t want to strike, but it has no choice “if the administration continues to make unreasonable demands.”

Union Local 1220 is available to negotiate at anytime, Comerford said.

Meanwhile, Culver said the agreement the district put forth at the last meeting between the two sides, that occurred on Tuesday, is the district's “best and final offer.”

Search our public salary database to see what District 189 workers made last year.

Carolyn P. Smith: 618-239-2503

Related stories from Belleville News-Democrat