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East St. Louis ends month-long teacher strike; city's budget in trouble

Updated Nov. 20 to clarify the city's current budget deficit. Updated at 7 p.m. Oct. 30 with vote results: Class will be back in session on Monday for the 6,000 students enrolled in East St. Louis public schools.

A teacher strike that began Oct. 1 is over after the school board and teacher union voted Friday to approve a new contract for the district's 400 teachers and professional staff.

"It was a split vote, certainly much more than a simple majority but it was a split vote," Illinois Federation of Teachers spokesman Dave Comerford said outside the union hall after the closed voting session. "This has been a tough situation.  You could say that even those who voted for it this has been a difficult situation. It's been a long strike. It's been hard on everyone. But the one thing everyone was unanimous on was that they were looking forward to getting back to their classrooms and their students."

The new contract runs through the 2017 - 2018 school year and increases the number of years it takes teachers to reach the top of the pay scale from 11 years to 19, two years less than the 21-year pay scale teachers rejected before they went on strike.

Teachers had been instructed not to talk to reporters before the school board voted on the agreement, but one union member said that the contract "stinks" as he left the union hall, asking "Do they think we can't do math?"

The school board vote, meanwhile, was unanimously in favor of an agreement that Superintendent Arthur Culver said will save the district $40 million over the next 20 years.

“It really reduces our financial burden because now the teachers won’t reach the top of the pay scale so quick,” Culver said. “The problem before is that teachers come to us at age 22 and at 33 they’re at the top of the scale and then we’re paying them at the top of the salary schedule for another 30 years because most of our teachers retire between the ages of 60 and 63.”

The new contract is retroactive from the 2014-2015 school year and runs through the 2017-2018 school year. It gives teachers who taught last year a one-time $3,000 stipend within the next 30 days. Current teachers will also receive a $1,500 stipend in December 2015 and another $1,500 stipend in June 2016 before moving to the 19-year pay scale for the last two years of the contract. 

The contract also stipulates that the district will make up the 21 school days missed during the strike. Culver said the district will first reduce Christmas and other holiday breaks in order to avoid extending the school year too far into June.

Updated at 9:56 a.m., Oct. 30, with scheduled votes: The superintendent of public schools in East St. Louis says a tentative agreement has been reached in the teachers’ strike that has kept students out of class for all of October.

Early today, Superintendent Arthur Culver sent out an email saying:

“The District Negotiating Committee and the Union Negotiating Committee are pleased to announce that a tentative agreement has been reached in collective-bargaining negotiations during the ongoing strike. The Union and the District’s governing authorities will consider the tentative agreement soon, and we remain hopeful that it will be approved so our students can return to school.”

Kelli Hawkins, spokeswoman for the district, said the school board and the district's state financial oversight board have scheduled a joint meeting for 3:30 this afternoon to consider the contract. She said she did not have details of when the union is meeting to consider the contract but expected that vote to be concluded by the time of the scheduled board meeeting.

Details of the agreement were not released. "We want the union members to be able to see them before they are made public," Hawkins said.

Since the strike began Oct. 1, more than 6,000 students in District 189 have missed class. Talks with a federal mediator had failed to reach a compromise until now in the dispute over money.

The disagreement has focused on the district’s proposal to lengthen the time it takes for teachers to reach the top of the salary schedule. From the current 11 years, it wanted to stretch out the schedule to 21 years.

The district’s proposal also included an immediate pay raise for the next few years, but the union had said the longer salary schedule amounted to a pay cut for teachers over the length of their career and was unacceptable.

Education data released today shows that the East St. Louis school district has a graduation rate of 73 percent and only 5 percent of students who take the ACT got a score of at least 21. Those figures compare with statewide averages of 85 percent on the graduation rate and 46 percent on the ACT.

Word of the tentative agreement in the teachers strike came as the budget director for the city of East St. Louis said it is running out of cash to pay its bills. Unless something changes, the finance department expects to spend the last of the remaining $2.2 million in the city's general fund by sometime in December.

“Now mind you that’s if we keep things status quo as we just pay our bills as we need to pay them and pay payroll,” said Dawayne Stewart, assistant finance director. “If anything comes that we’re not anticipating—lawsuits, any judgments, things like that, that accelerates how fast we run out of money.”

Stewart revealed the looming deadline at a public budget hearing Thursday night after Mayor Emeka Jackson-Hicks asked when East St. Louis would run out of money to pay its employees.

City manager Alvin Parks said he is considering taking out a short-term loan to make ends meet.

“We’re going to make sure that our employees get paid and make sure that our vendors get paid, at the same time continuing to cut back on expenses,” Parks said.

The move would add to the city’s growing debt — a deficit budget director Egzabia Bennett projects will reach $11 million by 2019. The proposed 2016 budget has a deficit of $6.5 million. According to Mayor Emeka Jackson-Hicks, the city already has a debt approaching $5.7 million.

Bennett outlined the city’s financial problems during the hearing as part of a presentation on the proposed 2016 budget. The city council is scheduled to vote on the budget Nov. 12.

He said the city needs to file for bankruptcy so that it can renegotiate contracts into a form East St. Louis can afford.

“Bankruptcy is the only way that you can actually restructure your debt,” Bennett said. “I recommended that last year and I also recommended that earlier this year. But it’s the council’s decision whether they want to go that route or not.”

It’s a recommendation that Alvin Parks — Bennett’s boss — doesn’t support.

“I am never for bankruptcy,” Parks said. “I think we need to tighten our belts and produce some more revenue and find a way to work through the situation. But no, bankruptcy is not an option that I’ll be recommending to the city council.”

So far Parks has eliminated 7 administrative and 8 police positions to reduce costs. He points to economic development as the long-term solution to East St. Louis’ budget woes.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.