Smile Politely

What’s going on with Unit 4 contract negotiations?

As a parent of a Unit 4 student, I’ve been paying attention — admittedly not always close attention — to contract negotiations between the school board and the teachers, represented by the Champaign Federation of Teachers (CFT). Their previous contract was up at the end of June, and negotiations for a new one began in May. However, with a strike date now looming, it’s time to perk up our ears and be informed about what’s happening.

Months of negotiations, even with the involvement of a federal mediator, have been unsuccessful, leading teachers to overwhelmingly vote to authorize a strike which will begin November 26th if no agreement is reached before that date. While I’m sure my middle schooler would enjoy a few days off, a strike is obviously something that no one wants to have happen. Teachers want to be teaching their students, parents don’t want to have to scramble for alternative plans, and no doubt the school board would rather not let it get to that point. 

I’m a former teacher, the daughter of former teachers, the granddaughter of former teachers, and have a number of teachers in my circles. Teachers do often thankless work, they invest their time and energy well beyond the hours of the school day, and they often use their own resources to make sure that their classrooms are well-equipped for their students. They also do not go into this job because it’s financially lucrative. My default setting tends to be standing with teachers.

However, our current school board is one that I have a lot of trust in. It’s made up of parents and community members who, in my opinion, have shown that they care about this district and truly want the best for students and teachers alike. School Board President Chris Kloeppel expressed his faith in a resolution. “We value our teachers, we value our support staff, we value our administrators, we value this community, and so we will work through this to bargain in good faith. We will continue to come to the table to work with the teachers to come to an agreement on a contract.” The next bargaining date is November 14th.

This is not going to be an editorial take on the situation, rather a (hopefully) informative snapshot of what the “sticking points” are. If you want to dive in deeper to the finer points and specific language of the negotiations, you’ll find links at the end where you can do so.

CFT President Jen White highlighted these points for me, which I’ve summarized below. The board recently published an FAQ that addresses these as well as some of the discussions that have been playing out in the public arena, and those are quoted below as well as they pertain to each item.

Class size

CFT: The teachers are looking for a plan for addressing rising class sizes from the district. They are asking for a cap on class sizes, and if the class exceeds that the teacher is provided with an aide. An aide shortage might make this difficult, which they acknowledge, but they’d like to see an alternative plan from the district, and they say the district has been open to discussions, yet have not put something forward as a solution.

Board: “As more families choose Unit 4, the Board agrees that kindergarten class size should be addressed and has proposed to engage a broad group of stakeholders to review, during this school year, ways to best address current District enrollment trends (including Kindergarten class size). The Board added an additional Kindergarten section for the 2018-2019 school year and is considering adding additional classrooms for the 2019-2020 school year, which will lower class sizes across the District. As longer term options are evaluated, the Board would like a variety of stakeholders to address whether additional classrooms are a preferred option instead of adding Teacher Aides to existing classes, or if other options might be best.”

Home Visits

CFT: Teachers would like to be out in the community, meeting parents in homes or community centers, building relationships between schools and families. While many do this on their own time, they would like this to be a formalized process, and would like teachers to be compensated with additional personal leave time to make up for this time that they are already spending outside of school.

Board: “The Board agrees that outreach to families and others in the community can be an important and effective method to improve outcomes for students. Because of this, the Board has offered to provide training (in cooperation with CFT) and paid time for teachers to connect with those we serve.”

Professional Development Days

CFT: The district would like to add two extra days to the calendar for professional development making nine rather than seven. The CFT has countered by saying they would like all professional development days to include “teacher time” in the afternoon, where they would have the freedom to choose how to best use that time to work on what they need to do for their specific classrooms and students. They also question the effectiveness of the PD offered by the district.

Board: “Boosting achievement of our underperforming students is one of the Board’s top priorities and we feel that a highly trained staff, focused on equitable outcomes, is one of the best vehicles to achieve this goal. Teachers spend a considerable amount of unpaid time outside of school hours growing their professional capacity.  The Board also devotes significant resources to offering high quality staff development opportunities during the work day. Feedback provided by our teachers shows that most of these sessions receive positive reviews from 90%+ of attendees each year. The Board believes this time is critical for furthering the District’s work around equity and boosting achievement of underperforming groups of students and wants to offer teachers more paid opportunities to engage in this critical work, instead of asking teachers to do this on their own time, in a less structured way, and without compensation.”

The Money

The CFT has been adamant in stating that the above issues are of more importance then their financial requests — no teacher goes into education for the money — and they are not ready to move on the money aspect until they have some agreement on those issues. According to White, “bargaining is not about how much you move, it’s about where you end up.” She says what they initially put forward was what they felt was fair yet also reasonable, rather than overshooting so they had more room to work their way down.

The financial breakdown gets more complicated and difficult to summarize, especially if you are unfamiliar with the way teacher salaries are usually determined, and there are insurance and retirement benefits to consider as well. The process of determining raises was complicated by a bill signed by Bruce Rauner that limits raises in the few years before retirement. If you are so inclined, I encourage you to take a look at the compensation portions (pages 8 and 10 of the CFT’s latest proposal and pages 7-12 of the district’s latest offer) to see where the discrepancies lie.

Last night during the public comment portion of the school board meeting, there were several parents and teachers that spoke to the board about the negotiations. The commenting went on for about an hour, and included a lot of support for teachers and a desire for them to have the resources that they need, yet also thanks to various board members for their record of listening to parents and their transparency through the referendum process. According to Unit 4 parent (and SP writer) Erin Ewoldt who was in attendance, “the group was encouraging of teachers, thankful for the work being done, and intensely proud of the close-knit community Unit 4 schools are. Teachers left feeling thankful for the turnout and the supportive statements that were made.”

Want to dig into this further? There are lots of opportunities to do that, with resources put forth by both the board and the CFT. I encourage you to do a little homework, if only to gain more insight and appreciation into the complexity of the work happening in public schools districts. 

Photo by Grant Thomas

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