DANVILLE — Long before the votes were tallied, Robin Twidwell said she already had a good feeling about the results of a Danville Education Association election held Friday.
The association's two bargaining units — one for teachers and teaching assistants, and one for secretaries and learning-resource clerks — overwhelmingly approved merging into one unit in an election conducted by the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. A majority of members from both units needed to vote in favor of the merger in order for it to occur.
The vote means that all of the just under 600 members will work under one contract for the first time since the secretaries and learning-resource clerks joined the DEA in the late 1980s.
"Our membership is absolutely thrilled to make this legal," DEA President Twidwell, said, adding an "impressive" number of members turned out to vote. "Legally, we've always been two separate units, but we've functioned as one. We've always had one team bargain both contracts, and the board has always had one team bargain both contracts" until this year.
With that behind them, the DEA and board officials said they hope contract talks can move forward. The old two-year contracts expired on June 30, 2012.
"I hope this will open the door to more candid conversation and allow us to start focusing on the issues," Twidwell said, adding the two sides must still address salaries, health insurance, extending the school day and other language issues.
Superintendent Mark Denman said talks could resume later this month.
He said the two sides are still deciding whether they'll need the federal mediator who was involved in the last few bargaining sessions.
This has been one of the board and DEA's lengthiest negotiations, largely due to a dispute over how the contracts would be bargained. The two sides exchanged proposals in mid-April. However, the DEA was taken aback when the board announced it would have two separate teams bargaining the two contracts separately — a change from how it always had been done in the past.
"The rationale was we had two different sets of employees with different needs," Denman said. "One group works eight hours, one group works seven" among other things.
However, the DEA saw it as a move to break the union and filed a complaint with the labor relations board, accusing the board of bargaining in bad faith. The board then filed its own complaint with the labor relations board, accusing the DEA of refusing to meet because it didn't like the change.
Last August, the association filed a petition with labor relations board to merge the units, and the labor relations board ruled in the association's favor in February. The school board initially filed an objection against the petition, then agreed to accept the labor relations board's decision.
"We could have taken it to circuit court, but that would have been a very expensive venture, and the outcome would not have been assured," Denman said.
Twidwell pointed out that the board already spent about $30,000 in attorneys' fees fighting the merger.
"That's just incredibly frustrating to me. That's a (beginning) teacher's salary. We could have saved one teacher's job," she said.
Last month, the board approved eliminating two dozen positions — including 22 teaching positions and two school administration managers, one each at North Ridge and South View middle schools — and making nearly $1 million in non-personnel cuts to save the district nearly $3 million in the upcoming fiscal year. Six employees were laid off through a reduction-in-force.
Denman said now the two sides must work "to meld the two contracts together."
"We've had some informal talks on how we would do that," he said. "They'll be some time involved, but I think it's doable. There are passages in both contracts that have mirroring language."