Union expected to vote on 3-year deal next week

CHAMPAIGN – After a marathon bargaining session that ended about 3:30 a.m. today, Champaign teachers and administrators reached a tentative agreement on a new three-year contract.

Before school began today, teachers came by Greg Novak's Jefferson Middle School library to congratulate their union leader. Novak, president of the Champaign Federation of Teachers, said he can't disclose any details of the agreement until the union leaders have a chance to double-check its terms and their 800 members review them.

Novak said teachers will likely meet at 4 p.m. Tuesday at Centennial High School to vote on the contract, although he said he hasn't yet made arrangements for that meeting.

"The district is very pleased," said Assistant Superintendent Beth Shepperd. "We hope the teachers will be pleased as well. We very much appreciate the team effort it took."

A strike was scheduled to begin Monday if the negotiations weren't successful.

Novak said sessions last night with a federal mediator concluded successfully "because we just kept at it."

"We worked out the issues," he said. "We just stayed there and we got done. We both wanted it settled so we did what you do in negotiations. It's the art of finding a compromise. Both sides are probably unhappy with some of the parts we agreed to."

Shepperd agreed with Novak that the atmosphere Tuesday night was different. "Everyone was really soul-searching to see where there were areas of compromise, how we could make this work for all parties," she said. "We felt 'we want to do this tonight. We don't want everyone focused on what if. We want everyone focused on school and instruction, not a contract.' It was time to make it happen."

"I think both sides felt that with the Sunday deadline, this was our best shot at reaching a deal," said school board President Scott Anderson.

Novak said negotiating team members met face-to-face with Superintendent Arthur Culver, Anderson and district attorney Charlie Rose, but other school officials, including chief financial officer Gene Logas, Shepperd, Deputy Superintendent Dorland Norris and board member Arlene Blank, were also involved.

The union bargaining team included Novak, Illinois Federation of Teachers representative Jon Nadler and teachers Deb Foertsch, George Pellum, Shauna Carey, Jennifer White, Anne Roth, Jim Linnenburger, Jill Kjorlien and Ja'net Cross. Cross didn't attend Tuesday's session.

Bargaining has been difficult this year because both sides had to take into account new state rules that limit end-of-career raises, which help determine pensions, to 6 percent, down from the customary 20 percent. Future changes are likely in those state rules, and Novak said that's another reason union members are reviewing the financial agreement very carefully.

Shepperd said those retirement issues were "huge."

"We have to negotiate against the unknown and that puts us all in a difficult situation," she said.

It was Novak's 10th contract negotiation – and likely his last since he plans to retire at the end of this school year.

"Some are harder and some are easier," he said. "We didn't go into January and we didn't strike so this time, it was a success, although it would have been better if we'd done it in June. Every contract's different, and you have to deal with the realities and the dynamics of the people involved."

Before Tuesday's session, the two sides were about $450,000 apart on salary increases during the three-year life of the contract.

In recent history, Champaign teachers have gone on strike three times, most recently in 1986, when they were out for 13 days.

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