CATLIN — Teachers are preparing to go on strike in the event that contract negotiations between their union and the Catlin school board aren’t successful.
The Catlin Faculty Organization filed a 10-day intent-to-strike notice with the Illinois Educational Labor Board, after it passed an intent-to-strike vote by an overwhelming margin at a meeting on Monday night.
“This doesn’t mean we will strike in 10 days. But it gives us that option should we choose to do that in the future,” union president Lezlie Holman said.
She added teachers don't want to do that but are frustrated because they believe the board is refusing to sit down with them and discuss the issues.
The vote came a week after the two sides met with a federal mediator in an attempt to iron out their differences on teacher salaries, a new teacher evaluation model and other issues.
Superintendent Gary Lewis said he wasn’t surprised by the move. But he believes the two sides made some progress at that last bargaining session on Oct. 22 and still is hopeful that can continue.
“We’re more than willing to meet and talk with them, and we’re still hoping we can reach a settlement,” he said, adding the district’s goal has been and remains to approve a three-year deal that’s fair to both teachers and taxpayers and mindful of the district's current financial situation.
The two sides plan to meet with the federal mediator again. However, the next meeting date has not been scheduled.
The educational labor relations board had not received the Catlin union’s notice as of late Wednesday afternoon, special counsel John Brosnan said. Holman expected it to arrive Thursday.
Brosnan said other steps would have to be taken before teachers could walk out.
“One party has to declare an impasse,” Brosnan said, explaining that could happen 15 days after mediation has commenced.
After an impasse is declared, both sides have seven days to submit their final offer, including a cost summary, in writing to the mediator, educational labor relations board and the other party. The board must then post the final offers on its website for public viewing for seven days.
“Those steps are designed … so that by the time you go through them, hopefully you’ve taken care of the problem,” Brosnan said.
The union represents 44 teachers. Teachers are currently working under their old one-year agreement, which expired on June 30.
The two sides have met five times since talks began in July. Both sides filed to bring in a mediator during the last round.
The main sticking point has been teachers’ salaries, which Holman said, on average, are among the lowest in Vermilion County.
“Only two other districts are lower, and they’re K-8 districts,” Holman said, adding teachers want to see the salary schedule overhauled.
Under the current schedule, she said, beginning teachers’ salaries are on par with those of other beginning teachers. But she said there’s a noticeable gap for teachers with more experience and education — between $2,254 and $5,841 when you compare teachers from Catlin and Bismarck.
Holman added that the board’s three-year proposal would give teachers their regularly scheduled step increase, but only an average 0.46 percent increase on top of that during the first year.
“We need to make our salaries more competitive” to attract and retain quality staff, said Holman, who believes there are funds available to do that.
Lewis declined to discuss contract specifics. But he did say the district is offering a fair proposal given its current financial situation, which has been hurt by declining local, state and federal revenues.
During the last fiscal year, the education fund took a $300,000 hit, taking reserve funds from $1.2 million to around $900,000. It’s looking at a $550,000 loss at the end of the current fiscal year, he added.
Lewis said the district has lost almost $200,000 in state aid, its equalized assessed valuation has flattened out resulting in the loss of $60,000 in property tax revenue, and enrollment has flattened out, as well.
Officials don’t know how much worse it will get, or what teacher pension reforms will require of school districts, he said. “We’d like to keep the district viable as long as we can,” he said.
Holman said several language issues also remain unresolved, many of which are related to teacher effectiveness and student learning. She said teachers wanted to create and pilot a new teacher evaluation tool, which “has the potential to help make all teachers the very best we can be.
“But the school board would rather default to the state model,” she said. “They refuse to bargain or even discuss the finer points involved. This is language that is becoming quite common in area teacher contracts, and it doesn’t cost our district anything.”
While a strike could still be a long way off, Lewis said, the district doesn’t have a plan for its 530 students, if one can’t be averted. “We’d have to make up those days,” he said. “Anything that has been scheduled would have to be canceled.”