District 189 oversight board hears earful from parents, community members

Parents, grandparents and students brought their emotions, impatience, anger and frustration to the East St. Louis District 189 Financial Oversight Panel board meeting on Monday as the teachers’ strike continues.

Ranadore Foggs, chairman of the oversight board, said members of the panel — Deb Vespa, Sister Julia Huiskamp, Mary Kane, District 189 Superintendent Arthur Culver and retired St. Clair County Judge Milton S. Wharton — could only listen to them. He said they would take comments seriously as they look at the financial picture for the district.

Dave Comerford, spokesman for Union Local 120, said the union brought “our numbers guy down here to talk to the FOP panel and he was not allowed to talk. He was told there was no room on the agenda.”

Comerford called the district’s refusal to allow David Richmond to speak “disappointing.” He sees the move as another sign from the district that it is unwilling to settle the strike.

Comerford said the focus “needs to be on those people who have made sacrifices.” He said the budget process the district used in the last three years is off by $50 million.

He was proud of the turnout of the community. “Members of the community came here to let the oversight panel see they need to take a closer look,” he said.

Comerford said the district has in its budget to hire 40 new positions. “Our estimate is that it costs the district over $2.5 million. They don’t end up hiring that many people when people are dropping out of the district,” he said, adding some of that money could be used to pay the teachers.

Meanwhile, inside the board room, the oversight panel heard one plea after another to end the strike.

We need to listen with our hearts. Our community is hurting. Our children are hurting. We need a sense of urgency. I don’t see people locking themselves in a room, duking it out until this matter is resolved.

Cheryl Anthony, resident of East St. Louis speaks about the teachers’ strike

Andria May pointed to a sign just behind Culver and Foggs that reads: “Children First.”

She said she planned to say other things, but the sign captured her attention because contrary to what the sign said, “our children are not first.

“All children of all classrooms are suffering,” May said. She told the panel: “your goal sits behind you ‘children first.’”

To save the next generation, May said children need to be in school learning. She said taxpayers fund the district, and she wants the money used wisely.

“Stand up for what’s right,” she said. “It’s about these babies — outside on the streets — parents staying home watching their kids” when they should be at work.

Foggs said the panel can only listen. “We have our eyes and ears open. We’re taking what you say under consideration,” he said.

Then he told the audience that a legal representative from Illinois State Board of Education was listening in on a conference call.

Cheryl Anthony, who had several children graduate from District 189 and whose husband pastors a small church, said as the strike continues the more upset she gets. She said some children come to the church looking for food. And on Wednesday night, some of them came looking for something to do.

“We need to listen with our hearts. Our community is hurting. Our children are hurting. We need a sense of urgency. I don’t see people locking themselves in a room, duking it out until this matter is resolved,” Anthony said.

Mamie Cosey, a 74-year-old parent of three special needs children, lit a fire in the audience when she spoke fervently and passionately about the strike.

“We have waited. We have waited. And, we have waited. We owe it to our children, as parents to make the difference in their lives,” she said. “It’s time to stop talking. It’s time now for action. It can happen today if we really care. We’re not negotiating in good faith. If we did, we’d be moving.”

Then, turning to the parents in attendance, she said, “parents, we have got to move this strike. We’ve got the power to move this strike...We don’t want no more of this.

“Give them what they need,” Cosey said. “I have one income, but I meet all of my needs because it is my responsibility to take care of my family. It’s the state’s responsibility. You came and took it over.”

The next negotiation session between the district and the union is set for 1 p.m. Tuesday.

Comerford said the union team “will come prepared to spend however long it takes to reach an agreement. We are bringing sleeping bags and are willing to spend the night negotiating if that’s what it takes. We hope the district’s team will join us in that commitment.”

Carolyn P. Smith: 618-239-2503