No school again: East St. Louis teacher strike continues Tuesday

Day three of East St. Louis teachers' strike

The third day of the East St. Louis teachers' strike brings new talks between the Illinois Federation of Teachers and District 189 representatives.
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The third day of the East St. Louis teachers' strike brings new talks between the Illinois Federation of Teachers and District 189 representatives.

East St. Louis District 189 students will miss another day of school on Tuesday as the teachers’ union and district officials made no progress on negotiations following a three-hour meeting on Monday afternoon. Tuesday will mark the fourth day of the teachers’ strike, which began on Thursday.

Superintendent Arthur Culver said the union wants an 11-step salary schedule, and the district has proposed a 21-step schedule. Under the district’s proposed schedule, it would take a new teacher 21 years to reach the top of the salary schedule.

Following the meeting, Culver said he was in “shock and awe. We were very disappointed. We really have done the best we can,” he said. “It was clear they still have unreal expectations regarding what we can afford and sustain.

“I can not, will not and refuse to burden our taxpayers with an 11-step salary schedule that we can not sustain with our tax base,” Culver added. “You can’t sustain permanent salary with temporary funding.”

The new proposal from the union included a 3-percent salary increase in each of the next three years— 2016, 2017, and 2018 — plus what the salary schedule calls for them to earn, according to Culver. In some cases, that would mean a 10-percent increase, he said.

Union officials could not be reached for comment Monday night.

Dan Montgomery, president of IFT, came to the picket lines Monday morning. “I came to support the teachers and the 100,000 members around the state are with the teachers here, too,” he said.

Montgomery said both sides have to keep talking to get anything done. “The parents want their kids back in school. The teachers want to be back in school. We have to have a willing partner across the table from us,” he said.

There are 400 certified teachers in the district and nearly 100 non-certified teachers. “For every non-certified salary schedule, we added six steps at the top.” Culver said. “The average for other districts in the area is 23 steps. We are proposing two steps less.”

Culver also said there is no way to sustain the fund balance. Currently the $30 million fund balance the district has is only enough for four months operating expenses, he said. “You always need to keep three to four months in operating expenses,” Culver said.

It was clear they still have unreal expectations regarding what we can afford and sustain.

Superintendent Arthur Culver

Speaking to those teachers who are complaining about Culver’s more than $200,000 a year salary, Culver said, “I earn every penny.”

“This is not about me. It’s about a contract for Local 1220. We’re not going to let personal attacks and false statements intimidate us into recommending a contract that we know is not sustainable,” Culver said. “Their proposal today was more than double what was agreed on in the tentative agreement.”

The teachers’ union voted overwhelmingly against the tentative agreement reached last week.

Culver said the new proposal added about $6.5 million to the $5 million additional that was agreed to in the agreement over a three-year period.

He said the district cannot afford to sustain the contract the teachers want, and Union Local 1220 leaders say they would not ask the district for a contract that it could not afford.

Dave Comerford, legislative director of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said part of the problem is district personnel have not been forthcoming with the data that supports their claim that they can not afford to give the teachers what they want in their proposal.

“Come to the table. Show us your math that backs up that claim,” Comerford said Monday morning as many of the striking teachers stood nearby chanting and hoisting their signs for the public to see.

They’ve not shown us anything that says they can’t pay more.

Dave Comerford, legislative director of the Illinois Federation of Teachers

Comerford said the district has to file an annual report, but “they can show it to us now.” He said at one point district officials “could not tell us how many employees they have. You’ve got to know how many people you’re paying.

“They’ve not shown us anything that says they can’t pay more,” Comerford said. “We believe the district’s fund balance is up to $36 million. That’s what the latest data shows.”

Comerford said district officials need to have the Illinois State Board of Education determine what the district’s financial shape is.

“We argue that they’re padding it,” he said.

In past years when the district truly was in bad shape the teachers took a pay freeze, according to Comerford. The district is currently in recognition status, which means the district was in good financial shape according to the state’s last report.

Culver said he didn’t want the strike to happen and that’s why district officials dug deep into their pockets and emptied them. He said he gets up in the mornings knowing he did the best he could and did not hold anything back.

District meal program for students

In an effort to keep the school children fed during the strike, the district began offering a breakfast and lunch program for students in the district on Friday. District officials agreed to bus the students into the schools for the meals.

As a reporter stood on State Street near East St. Louis Senior High School and near Mason Clark Elementary on Monday morning, a number of empty buses with Illinois Central written on the sides of them drove by or some rolled by carrying one or two students on them.

“Parents aren’t sending their kids, because they don’t want to cross the picket lines,” said one teacher.

Others said children were being dropped off on the opposite sides of the street from where the picket lines are set up and security officers are walking the students across to the schools.

A News-Democrat reporter observed one little girl who came to Mason Clark Middle School to be fed, being walked across the street to the school by a security officer.

Asked about the lack of participation in the meal program, Kelli Hawkins, a spokesperson for the district, said 81 children came to breakfast and 78 for lunch on Monday. She said the district will be modifying the number of meals prepared based on the number of students who participate in the program.

More than 6,000 students in grades kindergarten through 12th attend school in District 189.

Hawkins said district officials do not see the food program as a waste, because “the opportunity is there for the students who want to to receive a nutritious breakfast and lunch to do so.”

And if the strike goes on, Hawkins said the district expects “more families to participate.”

The food program, including the buses, the drivers and the meals cost less than $5,000 per day, and Hawkins said the district gets reimbursed.

Carolyn P. Smith: 618-239-2503