CHAMPAIGN - More than 500 teachers showed up to a Wednesday afternoon union meeting, and 97 percent voted to give their negotiating team authorization to call a strike.
The Champaign Federation of Teachers represents about 850 teachers and met a week after the union's second mediation session with the school district.
"The membership clearly sent a message to our bargaining team," said union President Cathy Mannen after the teachers' 4:30 p.m. meeting, after announcing the number of teachers who voted and the results.
The teachers' contract expired this summer, and the union and school district started negotiating with a federal mediator in August.
A strike authorization vote has to do with the union's constitution, said Illinois Federation of Teachers spokesman David Comerford.
It gives the negotiating team a chance to report back on negotiations and allows members to give feedback and then vote on whether to give the team the authorization to move forward with a strike if necessary. Once the union and school district have started working with a federal mediator, either side can notify the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board to start the process of submitting its best and final offer, Comerford said. Both sides have a week to send that proposal to the board. The board then will post those offers on its website a week later.
When those offers have been posted for two weeks, the union can legally strike if its members choose to do so. The union also must file a 10-day intent to strike notice, but that can happen concurrently with the process of posting proposals, Comerford said.
School board President Laurie Bonnett said Wednesday morning that it's within the union's rights to take a vote.
"I think a lot of us on the ... negotiating team think it's premature," Bonnett said. The school district and union agreed on six issues at its last mediation session, and it was the parties' second time meeting with the federal mediator.
"I'm not really sure how this is a positive move in good faith for them to do this," Bonnett said. "We still think there's opportunity for agreement."
During the day Wednesday, both the school district and the Champaign Federation of Teachers released statements regarding negotiations.
The school district issued a statement from the Champaign school board Wednesday morning, saying it is "surprised and disappointed" the union's leadership has decided to take a strike authorization vote in the middle of bargaining. The school district still believes the parties can settle remaining issues through continued collective bargaining.
"The offer the district has brought forward includes an additional raise on top of the annual 'step' increase in the salary schedule and exceeds the rate of inflation," the statement said. "The current salary proposal would continue to ensure that Unit 4 teachers are among the highest paid in the area, in addition to offering fully paid health and dental insurance and pension benefits."
The school district said the union's proposed increase "would cause the district to deficit spend at a level that would put programs, staffing and other opportunities for students at risk."
"We value and respect all of our staff members and want to work with (the union) to come to a swift, successful conclusion to these negotiations," the statement said. "We are also mindful that we need to be fiscally responsible to our taxpayers and cognizant of the economic realities we face. The district remains fully committed to continuing to engage in good faith negotiations and to reach an agreement that benefits students, employees and taxpayers without disrupting the educational program."
Wednesday afternoon, the union sent a statement regarding the school district's response, saying members were disappointed the board "has decided to publicly criticize the union over a meeting that allows teachers to communicate with their elected union representatives."
"Teachers have been working without a contract since school started," the statement said. "They have every right to discuss this important situation and take action as they see fit. It is not the school board’s place to dictate how those decisions are handled."
The union said the board failed to acknowledge "that teachers have made financial sacrifices in the last two contracts."
"(Teachers) agreed to a salary schedule freeze in 2011 and a minimal 1.4 percent increase to the salary schedule last year," the statement said, even as the cost of living increased about 2 percent. "Concessions on health insurance are currently being discussed."
The union said it has never asked for "anything the district can't afford," and teachers will also discuss the school district's financial status at its Wednesday meeting.
"Financial documents show the district has a surplus of almost $12 million in the education fund alone," the statement said. "That fund is up by almost $600,000 this year as the district’s revenue sources increase."
The union said teachers don't want to see a backward slip in their contract "especially at a time when the district is not in bad financial shape."
"We want this to continue to be a place where teachers want to come and stay for their entire career," the statement said. "The union will continue to bargain with the board and make every effort to reach a fair compromise. Any vote taken tonight will not change that."
Champaign school district spokeswoman Stephanie Stuart declined to comment Wednesday afternoon on the union's response to the board's original statement.
The statement said the union will also provide updates on negotiations on its Facebook page.
The school district itself has a Facebook page, as well.