By CARL GREEN
Highland IL – It was a cool, cloudy day on the picket line outside of Highland High School on Sept. 12, and lines of traffic sped by on Troxler Avenue.
But this was a different kind of Friday. About two dozen teachers –– members of the Highland Education Association (HEA), an affiliate of the Illinois Education Association (IEA) and National Education Association (NEA) –– were picketing along the busy route to demand a fair new contract in the town’s first-ever teacher strike.
A smaller group of teachers held up signs at the school district headquarters on Broadway, and a noisy bunch of students supported the teachers nearby at a city park.
At all three locations, the response was the same – drivers honking their horns and spreading good cheer in support of the teachers. The teachers, a little uneasy about their first time on strike, were heartened and strengthened by their community’s show of support.
“It was so positive,” said HEA president ShiAnne Shively, a teacher in Highland since 1997. “We were very, very pleased.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE: After six-days on the picket line, teachers iwent back to class Sept. 19, having approved a new three-year contract that includes modest raises.)
THREE YEARS WITHOUT A RAISE
Public school teachers here haven’t seen their pay scale increased in three years, and for this year, the school district offered a one-time $500 stipend rather than an actual raise.
So the 174 teachers of the Highland School District took the courageous step of going on strike, risking loss of work and disrupting their community, in order to maintain the district as a place where good teachers want to be employed.
“They have been very brave,” Shively said. “I’m very proud of how we’ve come together for a good cause –– providing a good quality of education in this community.”
The Highland School District has six schools with about 3,000 students in and around the town, known for its German heritage, just south of Interstate 70 in eastern Madison County.
NEGOTIATIONS FAR APART
Highland teachers’ three-year contract ended Aug. 31. Negotiations began in April, but even after five sessions with a federal mediator, the two sides last week remained far apart –– with about $741,693 separating them, according to bargaining information filed with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board.
After more weekend talks with the mediator, the teachers voted 140-20 on Sunday, Sept. 14, to reject the school district’s revised offer. For this vote, the district upped its stipend proposal to $750 but still offered no actual raises.
For the past three years, teachers have received only the small “step increases” that acknowledge their increasing experience levels. This time, the district’s one-year proposal does not even include that.
“The offer is not one that would attract good teachers to the community,” Shively told the Labor Tribune. “Some people are already looking to go to other districts where they would be respected and treated fairly.”
Currently, a starting teacher in the district makes only $35,318 in salary, with benefits bringing the total package to $43,718.
The school district claims it is already operating at a deficit, in part because of reduced state funding that has hurt schools across the state. But the teachers point out the district is sitting on a $4.6 million balance and could afford raises.
The teachers voted 139-15 on Sept. 9 to authorize the strike. On Thursday, Sept. 11, school was shut down as the teachers took to the picket line.
Marcus Albrecht, regional director for the IEA, lauded the teachers for their courage. “It’s really incredible, really extraordinary, that these teachers are taking that step,” he said.
The background, he said, is that the district has been highly successful, in large part because of its high-level and stable teaching staff.
“The majority of teachers have master’s degrees,” Albrecht said. “They have a fabulous staff here.”
Test scores have been high and graduates have been successful. But for the past six years, the district has been steadily reducing the size of the staff.
“Fewer people are doing more work, but they have continued doing a wonderful job,” Albrecht noted.
CONCESSIONS AND A PAY FREEZE
When contract negotiations began in April, the district came in seeking concessions that the union maintained were unnecessary, such as dropping district support for family health insurance.
The district eventually agreed to drop the concession demands.
When the pay freeze “offer” came, teachers knew they had to fight back. “The teachers just took that as a slap in the face,” Albrecht said.
IMPACT ON COMMUNITY
The effects of a school district strike can be widespread in a community like Highland.
The high school football team was off to a good start but had to forfeit its game against Mattoon on Friday night and will forfeit any others scheduled while the strike is still on. Other fall sports, too, face rescheduling or cancellations.
An ACT college entrance exam scheduled for Saturday was canceled, leaving high school students to make other arrangements. And bus service was not available for the town’s parochial schools.
RISK AND SUPPORT
Teachers risked some unhappiness in the close-knit community by stepping out on the picket line, and some were a little uneasy
“It’s a situation where people worry,” Albrecht said. “They’d rather be in the classroom, working with their kids.”
(Read about the settlement in the Sept. 25 edition of the Labor Tribune.)