By Joe Boyle
After several months of tense negotiations, a tentative agreement was reached between the Evergreen Park School District 124 and the teachers union to avert a strike.
The tentative agreement results in a three-year contract for the teachers, who said they were paid considerably less than other local districts. The agreement was reached late in the evening on Oct. 2.
A packed gymnasium of teachers, parents, students and supporters attended a District 124 School Board meeting on Sept. 25 at Central Middle School in Evergreen Park. During the public forum, several teachers, parents and residents implored the board to provide an increase in salary to the teachers and paraprofessional staff.
Negotiations between the District 124 Board and the teachers union began in March.
Despite the high emotions, some members of the teachers union expressed some optimism over what they felt was considerable movement by the board during negotiations on Sept. 23.
"We're so glad to have reached the light at the end of the tunnel," said Linda Babiarz, a union co-president. The Evergreen Park resident is a third-grade teacher at Southwest Elementary School.
"It was a long road, but I think we have a contract that is fair to our members and that helps us provide our students with the education they deserve," Babiarz added. "We're very relieved that we've come to an agreement and can focus 100 percent on our students."
School District 124 is comprised of five schools serving kindergarten through fifth grade in each of the four quadrants in the village. The elementary schools are Northeast, Northwest, Southeast and Southwest. All students then enter Central Middle School beginning in the sixth grade. The District 124 schools represent more than 1,800 students.
During the Sept. 25 board meeting, Tracey Gleason, a technology teacher at Southeast Elementary School, summed up the feelings of the teachers in the district.
"I was a parent long before I became a teacher," she said. "Without a pay scale comparative to other districts, we will eventually lose more teachers. Your outstanding staff deserves better."
The teachers union had rejected an 11.5 percent salary increase offer on Sept. 23 for certified staff and increasing non-certified staff by 15 percent over three years, according to several teachers. However, they were encouraged that the board made a counter offer. The teachers said that the meeting was the turning point in negotiations.
The tentative agreement avoids a strike. The teachers union had given a deadline of Thursday, Oct. 17 to go on strike.
The union had cited low wages that in turn created a large teacher and staff turnover the past several years as being pivotal issues in calling for a strike.
"The board is grateful that we were able to come to a tentative agreement following a lot of hard work by both sides," said Kim Leonard, the District 124 school board president, in a written statement last week.
District 124 board members and the union represent more than 200 teachers and staff. Terms of the three-year contract was not disclosed as of Tuesday. The contract could officially be approved during the next District 124 School Board meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 16.