East St. Louis teachers strike continues, more talks set for Thursday
A mediation session Thursday between East St. Louis District 189 school leaders and representatives of the teachers’ union lasted only an hour and resulted in no deal. And there is no new meeting set up at this point.
The district’s superintendent, Art Culver, said it would be irresponsible for the district to approve a contract that it can’t afford on a long-term basis.
Dave Comerford, spokesman for the teachers’ union – Local 1120, said the meeting broke down after District 189 failed to present a new proposal to the union.
The union released a statement: “The district can afford the proposal we made last night. We used the district’s own numbers to show how their future budget predictions don’t add up. In just one year from now, there is no way the district will be in financial trouble. They have a $30 million surplus.”
Culver says $30 million is roughly the equivalent of four months of operating costs for the district.
With the session Thursday failing to produce a settlement, it’s unlikely the two sides can reach an agreement in time for the East St. Louis Flyers to have a football game on Friday night. Any proposed settlement would need to be voted on by the entire union.
The Flyers already have forfeited two games this season due to the strike and have lost two games they played. A fifth loss would knock them out of the playoffs.
High school sports teams cannot compete when their teachers are on strike. The school board had voted Tuesday to allow the football team to resume practices.
The teachers’ strike, which began Oct. 1, is in its 11th day.
The two sides remain at a stalemate over the number of salary steps included in the new contract. The teachers’ union wants an 11-step salary schedule, while the district wants a 22-step schedule.
An eight-hour mediation session took place on Wednesday.
Comerford said he believes the district is attempting to break the union.
“We believe they want the strike to continue so they can try and break the union. Getting our students back in school has got to be the priority.
Culver said the district has bargained in good faith and from where the district and union started, “we came a long way.”
He said the district has to make fiscally sound decisions to keep from putting the district back in the dire straits it was in four years ago. The union says the district has money, referring, in part to a $30 million fund balance that the district shows on its financial records. Culver said that money comes from temporary funding sources and can not be counted on to be available every year. In fact, he said it can not be counted on from one year to the next.
Comerford told reporters that “the district is scheduled to receive $1.9 million in new funding in general state aid. The district has also applied for an additional $5.4 million in district intervention funding. There is no good reason to assume district revenues will decrease.”
And, Comerford said at the meeting Wednesday that lasted eight hours at the Illinois Federation of Teachers Fairview Heights office, union leaders “voiced concerns with the district’s desire to hire 40 employees, even though they predict student enrollment to drop by 175 students per year. Their priority needs to be on the current teachers and staff who work with the children, not unnecessary employees.”
“The district can afford the proposal we made last night. We used the district’s own numbers to show how their future budget predictions don’t add up. In just one year from now, there is no way the district will be in financial trouble.” Comerford said. “When our students are out of school, the adults need to meet and work out a compromise.”
Culver said the union’s proposal more than doubles the annual cost of the tentative agreement already reached by the district and the union on Sept. 29.
“The district with the Illinois state Board of Education (ISBE) intervention since 2011, is amidst a multiyear effort to stabilize the district’s financial condition, implementing significant budgetary reductions such as school closers, reduction in force and employee salary freezes
Culver said he is required by law, as superintendent of the district to “maintain fund balances adequate to ensure the district’s ability to maintain levels of service and pay its obligations in a prompt manner in spite of unforeseen events or unexpected expenses.”
Ranadore Foggs, chairman of the districts’ Financial Oversight Panel said, “I hope there’s a fast resolution to contract negotiations. I would like to see our teachers get a fair and equitable contract. Whatever the contract is, it has to fall within the confines of the district’s financial plan. We know, from the FOP point of view, our mission is to deliver a balanced budget.”
Foggs said “anything that goes beyond the confines of the four year financial plan is really unrealistic.”
Foggs said the FOP is not part of the negotiations between the union and the district. “The district and the school board decide what they are going to offer. They come to us and we tell them if they can afford it or not. I hope there is an agreement soon,” Foggs said. He doesn’t know why it’s taking so long to reach an agreement.
“I don’t know if its because not enough information is being presented. We want to be transparent. I avail myself and to help in any way I can. But, there are only so many checks you can write without going into a hole,” he said.
Foggs said he would love to hear offers and options. “The FOP is not closed-minded. We will look at any options. There is no hard and fast approach to bring this to closure.
“I hope everyone understands in the end that we have to be fiscally responsible. We can’t promise something we have no ability to deliver. It’s like balancing your personal check book. You know what you bring in and what you can pay out,” he said.
Foggs believes the union knows “we are being transparent.”
“We do not have a smoking mirror, no hidden shoe box filled with money somewhere, no misappropriated funds. The FOP, the local board of education and the district have worked well with the district on a shoe string budget. We agree our teachers deserve a fair and equitable contract. We can only give a raise we can afford,” Foggs said.
Like Culver, Foggs said the money in the district’s fund balance is for operating the district. “We have to keep the doors open and keep kids in school and this money can only last so long. It is subsidized appropriated money from the state. It’s not guaranteed to last from one year to the next. If we pay out more than we have, sooner or later the chicken will come home to roost,” Foggs said.
Culver said the marathon meeting on Tuesday night and the mini one hour meeting on Wednesday netted nothing. “Kids in the district are frustrated because they want to be in school. Teachers are frustrated. Union members are frustrated. District personnel are frustrated. There is clearly enough frustration everywhere. But, with no new meetings and no new plans of either side changing its stance, what happens next in District 189 is anyone’s guess.
Carolyn P. Smith: 618-239-2503