D-26 dispute costs at $29K and counting

CARY – School District 26 has spent at least $29,000 on legal fees during contract negotiations with the district’s teachers union.

An accounting obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request shows that the district spent $29,329.51 on negotiation-related attorneys between December 2010 and July 31, 2011. Information for August or September was not yet available, the district said.

During the first five months of contract talks between the Cary Education Association and the district, the school board relied on its standard counsel, Terry Hodges of Hodges, Loizzi, Eisenhammer, Rodick and Kohn LLP.

A contract was struck with the lawyer that included a flat fee – $1,500 a month – for the first several months of work, board President Chris Spoerl said. Under that contract, the district paid about $9,000.

In April of this year, shortly after a federal mediator was brought in, the district hired Robert Riley of Robbins, Schwartz, Nicholas, Lifton and Taylor Ltd.

“First of all, we felt that the process wasn’t moving as quickly as we had hoped, and we felt that a change was needed,” Spoerl said.

“We had met with Mr. Riley on a couple of occasions and were impressed with him,” Spoerl said. “He was also the attorney who worked with Fox River Grove [District 3] to conclude their contract and had come recommended.”

In June, Riley transitioned into the lead attorney spot. That month, the district paid $13,789.25 in negotiations-related legal fees, documents said.

“Regarding the June attorney bill, there was a lot of legal work that month – the board had multiple meetings dealing with the negotiations,” Superintendent Brian Coleman said in an email to the Northwest Herald.

“There were two extended mediation sessions and a significant amount of legal work related to preparation of documents submitting the board’s final offer and the declaration of impasse in order to comply with the board’s legal obligations under the [law],” he said.

Hodges still is the district’s attorney for overall legal matters, Spoerl said.

“It is just that Bob Riley has particular expertise in negotiations, and he has proven to be very beneficial in moving us forward,” Spoerl said.

“We have found him to be extremely knowledgeable of negotiations and extremely helpful in bringing two sides together. I’m not sure we would have gotten to this point without his help,” he said.

The federal mediator who has been working with both the CEA and the school board during negotiations is provided at no cost.

The teachers union has been guided during the negotiations process by a non-lawyer leader from the Illinois Education Association.

Negotiations timeline

• November 2010: Two six-member teams, one from the Cary Education Association and one from School District 26 begin to formally discuss a contract to follow the 2008-2011 agreement, to expire August 2011.

• Feb. 14: Administration unveils two plans to cut spending to balance its 2012 fiscal budget. It needs to chop at least $2.1 million for 2012 and $5.5 million by 2015 to remain in the black.

The district must maintain positive fund balances to avoid state reprimands and keep a promise it made to voters who in November floated a $15 million bond referendum, preventing state takeover and bailing the district out of years of deficit spending, officials said.

One of two options hinges on $2.5 million in wage and benefit concessions from the Cary Education Association. The other included closing an elementary school building.

• April 5: Both the school board and the CEA agree to bring in a professional federal mediator.

• April 18: The school board announces that the two sides have met 11 times and that little progress has been made.

• May 1: The deadline to reach an agreement to save Prairie Hill passes. Administrators say that with declining enrollment, the campus may have had to be shuttered eventually, but the need for budget reductions will prematurely push up closure.

• May 3: The school board votes, 5-2, in favor of what had become known as “tier two” cuts. These include closing Prairie Hill School to achieve $2.1 million in budget reductions. Board members Kevin Carrick and Scott Coffey dissent.

Closing the fifth- and sixth-grade campus means that the district’s remaining schools are over official classroom capacity in the fall. Redistribution of students means converting rooms originally designed for music, art and science labs into classrooms.

School officials say this will not violate fire or building codes because capacity guidelines pertain to when a building is being used as originally designed.

• July 7: The school board declares that negotiations are at an impasse. Last best offers from both sides are published and sent to the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board.

• July 29: CEA invites the district to binding arbitration.

• Aug. 4: The school board turns down offer to arbitration.

• Aug. 9: CEA offers new last, best contract including increases in employee insurance contributions, elimination of some retirement benefits and a salary freeze the third year of its proposed contract. The school board said the offer doesn’t concede enough.

• Aug. 15: The school board announces it will impose its last, best offer contract on teachers.

• Aug. 22: Contract officially imposed; school begins Aug. 24.

• Aug. 31: Tentative agreement said to be more mutually agreeable for both CEA and the school board is struck. Meetings Sept. 7 and 21 to iron out details.

• Sept. 22: CEA announces that contract talks have regressed. Another meeting on tentative contract set for Sept. 28.

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