Urbana school contract talks deadlocked

Urbana school contract talks deadlocked

URBANA – Union contract talks at the Urbana school district have reached an impasse.

"We've been in formal negotiations since April 1, and I've lost track of the time we've spent on this," said Urbana Education Association President Deb Tuttle. "We're at an impasse. The next step is for federal mediators to come in to help us come to a conclusion, and we'd like to conclude as soon as possible."

Urbana's two-year contract expires Aug. 16, and Urbana teachers have a history of not going back to work without a deal – unlike Champaign teachers, who worked for months in the classroom before their contract was resolved in January.

Urbana's union has 490 members, almost all of the teachers and about half of the district's support workers, Tuttle said.

Superintendent Gene Amberg said the district's financial constraints are well-known to teachers and all district employees.

"In the past two years, we've cut $3 million for the education fund resulting in almost 60 lost certified and noncertified positions," Amberg said. "We're having a very difficult financial time. We're trying to hold onto fine arts, social workers, librarians. We still have to cut $1 million for next year in addition to finding additional money for salaries.

"Any dollars for salaries are going to have to come off somewhere, and we're trying to make the impact as small as possible."

Amberg said the district will start working with a federal mediator in mid-July to try to resolve the differences. He's been in the district 11 years, and he remembers one one-day teacher "action" in the mid-'90s, and talks resolved by mediation one or two times.

Amberg said a lot of major issues remain unresolved. He said Champaign's contract resolution sets a salary standard, but comparative health benefits are an even more daunting issue.

"Our health benefits are much lower than Unit 4's," he said. "They moved way ahead of us in the last contract. Right now, our board's share is $165 per employee per month, and Unit 4's paying $90 more. In the past, the union has chosen to put money on the salary schedule, and we've fallen behind. This time, the union wants increased salary and increased premiums, so it's a double whammy.

"We as a board have a desire to overhaul the salary schedule so it's equitable, so we're trying to do all three things, and we've run out of time."

Amberg said about a quarter of Urbana's 400 teachers make as much or more than their counterparts at the same place on the salary schedule in Champaign.

"But we'd like to overhaul the schedule, we'd like to have a good starting salary, a strong middle salary and good salaries for our veterans," Amberg said. "There are also three language issues under discussion, especially class size."

Both sides had agreed to continue talks until June 1, "Then, if there was no agreement, we agreed to try some other method, and that's what's happening," Amberg said.

You can reach Anne Cook at (217) 351-5217 or via e-mail at acook@news-gazette.com.

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