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District 156, union officials optimistic despite 'contentious' negotiations

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014 5:28 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014 12:02 a.m. CDT

McHENRY – As negotiations between District 156 and its teachers union drag into their sixth month, the teachers union has cleared the way for a strike.

The two sides have been meeting with a mediator to work out the details of a two-year contract, and another meeting is scheduled for the end of January.

They also are trying to work out a date and time to meet ahead of that without the mediator, said Greg Eiserman, District 156 Teachers Association co-president.

“We would all agree that this has gone on long enough, so when we get to the meeting on [Jan.] 29, we should be done or close,” he said. “That’s not a threat. I think we can get it done.” Superintendent Mike Roberts also is optimistic.

“Both sides are saying, ‘Enough’s enough. We really need to get this done,’ ” he said.

But before heading off to winter break, the teachers union membership approved filing an intent to strike with the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board, starting the clock that dictates how quickly a union can move to strike.

State law requires unions to wait 10 days after filing the intent to strike before they can actually strike.

“The strike is the last thing that we want,” Eiserman said. “None of us want to do it.”

But these negotiations, which started in June after the newly elected school board took office and Roberts began to assume some of the superintendent duties, have been more contentious than previous rounds, he added.

District officials said negotiations had reached an impasse in late November, starting a process that requires both sides to post their last offer. It also opened up the opportunity for the union to vote on striking, which they did a week after the final offers were posted.

The biggest hindrance to coming to an agreement has been the economy and doubts about when things will turn around, Roberts said.

He pointed to a low inflation rate, which keeps the amount the district can raise its levy by down, and insurance costs, which “seem to be skyrocketing,” he said.

The district’s finances are doing a lot better than they were during the last round of negotiations when teachers took what the union argues amounted to a pay cut, Eiserman said. This time the union is looking for pay increases for its members while not incurring more costs in other areas.

Negotiations aren’t just a matter of debating salary and benefits increases anymore either, Eiserman said. They’re delving into areas that haven’t previously been on the table.

The last offers, which were posted to the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board website in December, showed the district and the union disagreed on salary increases, how much teachers pay for family health insurance coverage, tuition reimbursement, summer school pay, stipends for teachers that travel between campuses and early retirement incentives.

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