District 46 strike ends in public view

For parents Jamie Crandall and Christine Schmidt, spending most of Friday in a gymnasium watching negotiators go back and forth over contract issues was worth it.

“I’m glad to see a peaceful resolution was reached at the end of the day,” said Crandall, a mother who has two children in District 46 schools and two high school students who graduated who went from kindergarten through eighth grade in the district.

Friday afternoon, in an unusually public setting, the bargaining teams for the Prairie Grove Teachers’ Association and the district struck a deal after almost eight hours of mediation at Prairie Grove Elementary School, 3223 Route 176 in Crystal Lake. The agreement ended a one-day teachers strike that kept 1,000 students out of class Friday.

The school board’s attorney, G. Robb Cooper, pointedly asked Kathy Krepel, a band teacher and union representative, whether the agreement would be recommended to the rest of the 74-member association “without reservation.” Krepel said it would.

“And the kids are back in school Monday?” asked federal mediator Javier Ramirez.

Krepel said they would be, and the gymnasium audience erupted in applause.

The union is expected to vote next week to ratify the tentative agreement. It includes changes to the salary formula and health benefits and retroactive pay increases, Krepel said. Union leaders declined to disclose details of the agreement because the full membership had not had a chance to review it.

Speaking for the school board, Superintendent Lynette Zimmer said both parties are “walking away feeling like each gave and each got.”

“That’s the way negotiations should be,” she said.

The teachers association began bargaining for a contract Jan. 31, 2011. Teachers worked under the contract that expired in August 2011 until July 27, when the district imposed its “last best and final offer.”

Friday’s strike came after almost 22 months of bargaining and a seven-hour session that ended at 12:30 a.m. Friday. Teachers and supporters picketed outside the district campus along Route 176 with signs that read “On strike for a fair contract.”

“We’ve been patient enough,” said Bradley Piech, a teacher at Prairie Grove Junior High. “We hope, ultimately, that this will be the day [when a settlement is reached].”

Parents who turned out Thursday to support teachers asked officials to open Friday’s talks to the public, an uncommon move. Under Ramirez’s guidance and with the OK of both sides, the public was allowed to observe what had been closed-door negotiations. There were no interruptions.

Crandall and Schmidt said the public’s presence made a difference.

“It helps,” said Schmidt, a mother with a fifth-grader and a first-grader. “When you have it out in the public, you have to be more wiling to negotiate in front of people.”

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