District 156 'very close' to strike, spokesman says

McHENRY – The District 156 teachers union is "very close" to striking, its spokesman said Tuesday afternoon.
The comment came as the union released a letter to district parents through email, its Facebook page and on its website, reiterating its stance that a strike is the last thing the teachers want.

"We are here right now, and our desire is to continue to be here," spokesman Brian Weidner said.

The union has moved steadily closer to a strike since a December vote that started the state-mandated clock that requires teachers unions to give at least 10 days notice before actually going on strike.

Then, about 10 days ago, the teachers union took another step toward a work stoppage, unanimously authorizing its negotiating team to call a strike.

The negotiating team's decision would be based on the board's response to the union's next offer, Weidner said. The response came Friday with a counteroffer that the union said shows the board is not negotiating in good faith.

The counteroffer proposed a three-year contract that moves away from the traditional salary schedule, something that will allow the district to better project its costs, school board President Steve Bellmore said Saturday.

The switch to a three-year contract from a two-year one was needed because negotiations have put the district nine months into any proposed two-year contract, he said.

A three-year contract, as well as everything else included in the proposal, has been discussed numerous times over the past nine months of negotiations, said school board member Tim Byers, who heads the district's negotiating team.

"To state that we're not negotiating in good faith because we've offered a three-year contract is ridiculous," he said.

The union sent the district another offer on Sunday, which Weidner said will likely be made public on the union's website Wednesday evening, but Bellmore reiterated that the Friday counteroffer was the district's last.

The district is open to a two-year contract, but the terms would basically be the first two years of the proposed three-year contract, Bellmore said.

"That's the best offer we can give," he said. "There isn't anymore to give."

The negotiating teams for the district and the teachers union have not met since the district posted its final offer to its website Friday, and no meetings are planned, he said.

"We're getting very close [to striking]," Weidner said. "I will say that. It will not be this week, but we are getting very close."

The union has a full-member meeting Thursday evening, after which a more definite timeline will likely be available, he said.

Both sides said they hope to avoid a strike, but Byers added the main sticking point has not changed.

Because the district is offering 3.3 percent as a benchmark for salary increases for teachers as they move along in seniority – a number Byers said is higher than what most other area districts offer – plus an increase to the base salary each year, the district wants the union to agree to higher insurance contributions for family plans to even out the costs.

"Unfortunately, we still have other things to do," Byers said. "We have capital improvements that need to happen. We can't give them the entire pot of money that we receive each year. We're giving raises that we think are commiserate with today's economy. We think it's fair."

But after giving concessions during the last round of negotiations, the union doesn't want to take another step in that direction now that the district's finances are healthier, union officials have said.

"McHenry Community High School District has had trouble hiring their first choice of teacher candidates and retaining quality educators because other districts hire them instead," the union said in its letter to parents Tuesday. "The compensation package put forward by the Board of Education will continue to keep District 156 noncompetitive in the hiring and retaining of quality teachers."

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