Union could strike before month ends


FARMER CITY, Ill. (WCIA) — Just three weeks stand between now and the earliest date Blue Ridge school district staff could go on strike. 

The Blue Ridge Federation of Teachers voted Sunday night in favor of striking as early as October 28.

The vote comes after months of negotiations have failed to produce a contract between the two groups. Staff in Blue Ridge have been working without a contract since the previous one expired on June 30.

Offers from each group, required by the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board in advance of a strike, were posted publicly on Monday. 

Compensation-related issues — including health insurance, salaries, and payment for work outside of the workday — continue to be sticking points for the district and union. 

Blue Ridge Federation president Don Anton has said previously that low starting pay for teachers in the district causes a high rate of turnover, which negatively impacts students. 

Starting teachers can expect a base salary in the low $30,000’s at Blue Ridge.

The two sides continue to debate what kind of changes are needed for the district’s salary schedule — including various proposals on percentage increases for teacher salaries, as well as potentially eliminating some “steps” teachers need to take to get a raise.

The union’s negotiators noted that they “do not expect to finalize a contract with the increases that are in our proposal, no more than anyone who is making an offer on a house makes their first offer at an amount they think the owner will jump at.” 

“We have moved, and we will move again,” the proposal read. “This is the process of negotiating.” 

Other compensation issues include how much the district will contribute to employee health savings plans. 

The union originally asked the district to contribute $3,000 per participating employee, but has negotiated that number down to $2500 by the 2021-2022 school year in the public proposal. 

District officials say that plan, with its gradual, yearly increase up to that $2500 contribution, would, if enacted this school year, cost the district more than $220,000 extra.

Union members say the district’s high-deductible plan with Health Alliance merits contributions to employee health savings accounts and that the cost is only $82,908 extra when the district’s contribution amount from last year — $1,904 per participating employee — is taken into account. 

The union is also fighting for an hourly pay rate for teachers working outside of normal workday hours that’s higher than currently offered, as well as a “contractual guarantee” that data collected by the district from student surveys will not be used to evaluate teacher job performances. Those surveys are intended to determine which students “don’t feel a connection with any staff members,” according to the union.

“The validity of the survey is questionable, and not all buildings are distributing the survey to students,” the union proposal reads. 

The board proposal notes the district has “rejected” that offer.

Representatives from the board and union will meet on October 9, in the presence of a federal mediator, to continue negotiations.

The Blue Ridge Federation of Teachers represents 110 district employees, including custodians, teachers, nurses and bus drivers.

Both public postings can be viewed here.

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