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Update: Metro East Teachers Union Sets Strike Date

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Updated at 1:50 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 6.

Highland Education Association (HEA), the teachers union for Highland Community Unit School District # 5 in the Metro East, has set a strike date for Thursday, Sept. 11.

The union set the strike date following Friday's mandatory contract negotiation scheduled by a federal mediator. The mediator has scheduled another negotiation session for Monday.

HEA president ShiAnne Shively said that the union decided to set a strike date following Friday's meeting because the school board is still asking for a hard freeze on teacher salaries and for a decrease in retirement benefits.

Original Story:

A meeting Friday evening in the Metro East school district of Highland, is a last attempt to reach an agreement on a new contract for the district’s 174 teachers and avoid a strike. The teachers voted a week ago to go on strike after negotiations failed to produce a contract they approved.

The meeting is the fourth federally mediated session between Highland Community Unit School District #5 and the Highland Education Association since the two groups began contract negotiations in April. The teachers’ previous contract expired August 31.

Salaries and Benefits

Local union president ShiAnne Shively said the teachers have accepted reductions in benefits and minimal salary increases for several years and they cannot keep making concessions.

“Our teachers have been overworked and under-appreciated for so long that they are at the point where settling for small salary increases or no salary increases and reduction in benefits is just not an option for them anymore,” Shively said.

She said that the district has been in this position too many times and the teachers need to start thinking about their families and their ability to fulfill their financial responsibilities, adding that the district has enough money to give them the contract they’ve proposed.

But Highland Superintendent Mike Sutton said the union’s proposal,  which he said amounts to a 6 percent increase in salary and benefits, is unrealistic given today’s financial climate.

“It would cripple the district’s ability to maintain our programs and our staff,” Sutton said.

The two sides disagree on just how dire a state the district’s finances are in.

The teacher’s union says that the school district isn’t taking into account funds left over at the end of the school year, while the district says that the reason why the fund balance appears healthy is because of bonds the district has sold. Sutton said those bonds shouldn’t be used as a reason to increase salaries because the bond issue is limited and the salary increase would be perpetual.

Taxpayers approved a $5 million bond issue for the district in 2012. So far, $2 million in bonds have been sold.

“Our teachers worked very hard to help the district pass that bond issue,” said Shively, suggesting that issuing bonds for the remaining $3 million available would help out the district’s finances.

She said that since 2010 teachers have been on a soft salary freeze, meaning that teachers moved up the pay scale based on experience and education but that the overall salary rate did not increase. But, she said, the latest proposal from the district would put teachers on a hard salary freeze, meaning that they could not be rewarded for additional years of service or training they accumulate.

“But even without (the additional) bond issue money, there is still enough in the fund balances to provide a reasonable contract for the employees,” she added.

The superintendent had a different view.

“As far as I’m concerned there is only one way to look at the fund balances,” said Sutton. “(The teacher’s union doesn’t) seem to interpret the numbers the same way that we do, but the fact of the matter is the balances are the balances,” said Sutton, adding that the district is predicting a $400,000 deficit for the 2014-2015 school year even with the more modest teacher contract proposed by the school board.

No-Cost Issues

The teacher’s union would also like to add language to their contract that would lay out what is involved in teacher evaluations and language that would protect teachers against bullying from administrators.

“This district does a wonderful job with anti-bullying when it comes to the students in our classrooms and we would just like to see that carry over with the treatment of our certified staff as well,” said Shively.

Sutton said the no-cost language wasn’t as much of a concern for the school board, but he didn’t see the need to add such language to the contract because board policy already prohibits harassment and state law lays out how to conduct teacher evaluations.

“There’s no reason to include wording from law or legislation into our collective bargaining agreement because it’s already there. We already have to abide by those rules and regulations,” said Sutton.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean the district is willing to concede on the no-cost issues. Sutton said that if the law were to change on teacher evaluations the district could be placed in a difficult situation if they were obliged by contract to follow old regulations.

Depending on the outcome of the mediation, a strike could be announced as early as Monday. Both Sutton and Shively said they hope they can reach an agreement and avoid a strike.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille

An earlier version of the story identified ShiAnne Shively incorrectly as ShiAnne Shirley.

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