West Chicago High School teachers, board reach deal to avert strike

 
 
Updated 2/15/2018 10:58 PM
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  • Teachers, parents and students march from West Chicago High School to the District 94 administration center Thursday in advance of a last-ditch negotiating effort that resulted in a tentative agreement.

      Teachers, parents and students march from West Chicago High School to the District 94 administration center Thursday in advance of a last-ditch negotiating effort that resulted in a tentative agreement. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • West Chicago teachers and students gather Thursday to support union negotiators as they meet with District 94 school board members in a final attempt to avoid a strike that could begin Friday.

      West Chicago teachers and students gather Thursday to support union negotiators as they meet with District 94 school board members in a final attempt to avoid a strike that could begin Friday. Katlyn Smith | Staff Photographer

  • Dirk Enger is among those supporting West Chicago High School teachers Thursday.

      Dirk Enger is among those supporting West Chicago High School teachers Thursday. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

Negotiators for West Chicago High School District 94 and its teachers union have reached a tentative contract agreement that averts a strike at the eleventh hour and keeps nearly 2,100 students in classes Friday.

The union representing 141 teachers in the district had planned to walk off the job Friday if the two sides failed to come to an agreement during a last-ditch negotiation session Thursday night.

But West Chicago High School Teachers Association leaders announced the breakthrough in talks after a session that lasted nearly five hours Thursday.

The turnaround came after nearly two years at the table and about a month after the union declared an impasse in the increasingly acrimonious talks. Teachers had the ability to legally strike Monday and established a downtown strike headquarters in a building the union leased just steps from the district offices.

"We're pleased to be going back to our classrooms tomorrow," union President Brad Larson said about 10 p.m. Thursday.

School board President Gary Saake said the deal would increase salaries an average of sightly more than 12 percent over four years. The agreement, Saake said, is "reasonably similar" to the board's most recent offer and includes a traditional salary schedule.

Saake said he was grateful that negotiators were able to find common ground and make concessions.

"But both sides certainly benefited from this, and I think who benefited the most are going to be the students who are in school tomorrow," Saake said.

Teachers have agreed to provisions that would phase out a retirement incentive that gives teachers a 6 percent salary increase in the final four years of their employment, Saake said. That 6 percent cap allows the district to avoid paying penalties established in a state law meant to discourage schools from giving late-career pay raises to boost pensions.

The district would eliminate the incentive when the contract expires at the end of the 2020-21 school year. The two sides also have agreed to sunset a provision that pays insurance benefits for retirees until they qualify for Medicare.

Teachers would have to declare their intent to retire before the end of the contract to be eligible for the salary raises and post-retirement health insurance reimbursement.

Larson refused to discuss the terms of the proposed four-year deal.

"We want to thank everyone in the community who rallied to the support of the teachers," Larson said. "We really appreciate all that they did to help make this process play out the way it did."

Earlier Thursday, about 100 teachers and students marched from the high school to a boisterous rally outside the district headquarters as negotiating efforts resumed between the union and school board for the second time this week under the looming threat of a strike.

The district also made arrangements with libraries and park districts in West Chicago, Winfield and Carol Stream to provide alternative programs for students should teachers go on strike for the first time since 1984.

But with the assistance of a federal mediator Thursday, the two sides apparently resolved the long-running stalemate.

"We didn't get everything that we wanted," Saake said. "They didn't get everything they wanted. It's something that we can live with. It's not something that's going to break the bank by any stretch."

Both the board and union members still must vote to approve the tentative agreement. Larson could not say when the association's members would vote to ratify the deal.

Preliminary discussions on a new contract began in April 2016. Teachers have been working under the terms of a one-year contract extension that expired in August.

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