Two decades later, Homer teachers' strike still sore subject

Two decades later, Homer teachers' strike still sore subject

Twenty years ago, the town of Homer in southeastern Champaign County suffered a devastating blow, a severe disruption for every man, woman and child living within the confines of the village and surrounding school district. Some say the town hasn't fully recovered to this day.

It wasn't a tornado, a flood or a raging fire.

It was a teachers' strike that stretched from Oct. 16, 1986, to June 23, 1987, setting an undisputed record for the longest teachers' strike in the state. And experts at such things believe Homer holds the record for the longest one in the nation.

The eight-month-long strike accounted for 156 school days – more than twice as long as the second-longest strike in the nation, which occurred near Cleveland in 2002-03 and lasted 62 days.

The strike effectively wiped out a normal school year for 360 students, led some families to move away or pay tuition for their children to attend neighboring schools and eventually led to a merger with the Allerton-Broadlands-Longview district to the south.

More than half the teachers involved in the strike left, and all but two of the school board members left or were voted off in the first election after the settlement.

And the effect on the town, longtime resident Terry Wolf says, is something akin to a black eye on the face of an otherwise charming small farming community of 1,200.

"It's not a good memory, and it was a disgrace for the kids," Wolf said. "I believe the ordeal changed the town permanently."

The strike divided and polarized neighbors and family members. Bad feelings lasted for many years.

"It was sad. It tore the town apart," said Bruce Miller, who was teaching at the junior high school at the time. "Some awfully good people left Homer and never moved back.

"I don't think Homer ever fully recovered. It was discouraging how people that I thought were my friends turned against me. I would wave at somebody, and he or she wouldn't wave back to me."

Wolf said one of the long-lasting effects is that people stayed away from the town.

"There hasn't been any growth from housing in Homer," he said. "A lot of people relocated out of the community, and home values have really dropped. It was a terrible event for the community.

"That strike set Homer back a long time."

What's past is past

Some key players on both sides of the dispute don't want to talk about what happened two decades ago.

Marilyn Lee, who was president of the school board during the strike, didn't want to say much about the dispute.

"I would prefer to let bygones be bygones," Lee said. "You don't live in the past."

She said her husband is a farmer, so moving from Homer was out of the question. But she sees no long-term negative effects from the contentious dispute that drew the attention of the state superintendent of schools and Gov. James Thompson.

"I don't think one thing makes a community," said Lee, an attorney. "I think the consolidation of our school district with ABL and our community's fight to prevent a landfill from being built here brought a lot of healing to the community."

Colleen Brodie, a sixth-grade language arts teacher and president of the teachers' union during the strike, said she still feels bad thinking about the children who missed learning opportunities because of the conflict.

Brodie said the most difficult aspect of the strike was when the school board hired strike-breaking substitute teachers to replace those on the picket line.

"If that had not been done, things would have progressed differently," Brodie said. "The thing that sticks with me is that the school board spent more money on legal fees than it would have taken to settle with the teachers."

Barb Fuller, one of four or five striking teachers who remain in the Heritage school district, said there was a lot of upheaval for everyone. She hated being away from her classroom for the length of the strike.

"Once certain people's personalities got involved, it became difficult to bargain," she said.

And the most difficult part for her, she said, was that she sent her son and daughter back to class in Homer with substitute teachers while she remained on the picket line.

"The kids stayed home for about a month, but the state warned that if the school didn't get its numbers up, the kids would be held back," Fuller said. "So my kids had to go to school with the strikebreakers."

Regina Propst, who was in the strike and now teaches at Heritage, said she remembers feeling that it careened out of control.

"I think both sides had people with tempers and the tempers just got going," Propst said. "And then you know, once somebody says something, it escalates. And you get to a point where you almost lose sight of where you started."

Roy Woodmansee was a junior at Homer High when the strike began.

"We started my junior year with 26 students in my class, but only 12 or 14 of us graduated in Homer," he said. "The others all transferred to St. Joseph-Ogden or ABL.

"The hardest part of the whole experience was missing the half of my class that never came back."

20 years later

Current Mayor David Lucas said he believes the village never recovered from the strife.

"The hard feelings generated by the conflict still remain," Lucas said. "People left our town to go to other communities so their children could attend school. My guess is that as many as 15 families moved away, and those families never returned. The remaining numbers were so low that we had to consolidate."

Lucas said residents have a good school system with Heritage, which was formed in 1989, but he regrets the town no longer has a high school. Heritage High is in Broadlands.

"A high school in town is a focal point for a community," he said. "We no longer have that focal point. It's a cultural change that our residents must learn to accept."

Propst, who now teaches third grade at Heritage, said she harbors no ill feelings.

"I think it's a very happy, thriving school district now," she said. "A lot of people don't even remember it. And I have no ill feelings about it. It was a hard experience, but it was a journey."

Would she have done anything differently?

"I would wish that it had never gotten to the point that it did," Propst said.

Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association in Washington, D.C., was president of the Illinois Education Association during the strike. He made several visits to Homer during the strike.

"I remember the nastiness," he said. "Even though they started school back the next year, it wasn't the same. There were a number of excellent teachers who had gone somewhere else to teach. The whole town suffered."

State Superintendent of Schools Ted Sanders invited both sides to Springfield for a bargaining session. The governor offered the school district more state aid to settle.

In the end, it came down to personalities finally deciding they'd had enough.

Wolf, who was elected to the school board after the strike, said even then it was difficult to serve because of so much distrust between the board and teachers.

"The community really suffered; the students suffered," he said. "Friendships were broken, relationships changed and Homer businesses were affected.

"But ultimately life must go on. And that is water under the bridge."

Homer farmer Kent Krukewitt said though there have been some long-lasting effects of the strike, he hopes the community will recover eventually.

"It is in the past," Krukewitt said. "People need to look more toward the future."

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