Reporting Susanna Song
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UPDATED 10/02/12 – 5:36 p.m.
EVERGREEN PARK, Ill. (CBS) — Yet again, hundreds of students in the Chicago area are not in school, as teachers in one municipality went on strike on Tuesday.
As CBS 2’s Susanna Song reports, just weeks after teachers’ strikes disrupted school in the city of Chicago and in Lake Forest, teachers went on strike in Evergreen Park.
LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Bernie Tafoya reports
Many teachers arrived at the picket lines early Tuesday, around 6:30 a.m. They were out to get the public’s attention – particularly the parents who were scrambling late Monday night to find babysitters.
In total, the teachers in District 124 make up a small group – especially when compared to the Chicago Public Schools – as the local teachers union represents 135 teachers and 70 support staff at the district’s five schools. The district itself has a total of only 1,800 students.
But their message is loud and clear – they want a fair contract, and they say they feel cheated when it comes to a pay raise, insurance, and retirement benefits.
The strike was called late Monday night, after the union and board could not reach an agreement on the teachers’ contract.
Last month, the Evergreen Park Federation of Teachers rejected a four-year contract, saying insurance costs went up and retirement benefits went down. They also want to see bigger pay raises, not tied to or based on their students’ performance.
Eighth grade social studies teacher John Portala was at the bargaining table.
“A somber mood – I think we were being very professional, both sides of the table were,” Portala said. “We really worked hard – both sides – to get the deal done. It just didn’t happen. We’re still a little bit away.”
Portala says teachers mostly just want to maintain the benefits they have.
“I think we just want to keep what we’ve had in our contract. We’ve been fighting to keep what we’ve had – not lose anything. We’re not asking for anything more than we already have, besides a small increase in living wage. We just want to keep the benefits that we’ve been fighting for, for the past 35 years,” he said.
Union spokesman Dave Comerford said District 124 threatened at negotiations Monday night not to do what most school district do if there is a strike, and make up any lost class days.
“I’ve never seen a district put it in the contract language before a strike ever happened,” Comerford said. “And it was clear – this wasn’t about anything else but, ‘You better watch out what you’re going to lose. And it was a threat. It was an intimidation.”
Comerford says teachers and students end up losing under the current proposal, and points out that the district’s reserve fund is three times what it needs to be. The school board says it is just trying to be financially responsible.
Meanwhile, the junior high school and all four elementary schools in Evergreen Park are closed. Kids are enjoying a day off and running outside when they should be focusing in the classroom.
“I’ve got to find things to do for two extra kids that I normally don’t. I do have to work this afternoon at the hospital. I’ve got to find extra babysitters that I wouldn’t normally,” said Judy Terri, the mother of two Evergreen Park pupils.
Such is the case for parents of all 1,800 elementary and junior high school students.
“I am fortunate enough to be a stay at home mom, so i will be home with my children today,” said Kim Lenza. “I know there are a lot of my friends in the community that are not as fortunate to do that, so they were all scrambling for sitters and people in the community to help them out and watch their children today.”
The district posted several sites where parents can drop off their kids, including the Beverly Arts Center, 2407 W. 111th St. The arts center had plenty of activities planned for Evergreen Park students, but the seats were empty.
“Students will have lessons all day long in either computer, art, dance, theater, music visual arts, ceramics,” said Kris O’Reilly of the Beverly Arts Center.
Terri says the arts center could be an option for Wednesday, or else her husband – who is a teacher at another district – will have to take the day off to take care of the kids.
Activities are also being offered at the Evergreen Park Public Library, 9400 S. Troy St. in Evergreen Park; Little Red Schoolhouse, 9800 Willow Springs Rd. in Willow Springs; the Oak Lawn Children’s Museum, 95th Street at 51st Avenue in Oak Lawn; and Evergreen Park Recreation Department, 3450 W. 97th St. in Evergreen Park.
Portala said the teachers do not like the situation any more than the parents.
“We want to be in school teaching too. This is something that we did not want to have happen. We’ve been trying – like I said, since April – to get a contact, and we’re hoping this is something that we get resolved very quickly,” he said.
School board officials declined an on-camera interview, but released a statement saying the Evergreen Park Federation of Teachers did not respond to the board’s final offer Monday night. The current contract proposal offered by the board will expire on Friday.
No new negotiations have been scheduled.
Meanwhile, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who led Chicago teachers in their strike last month, stopped in Evergreen Park Tuesday morning to encourage the teachers not to give up.
CBS 2′s Roseanne Tellez reports, although the issues that led to the teachers’ strike in Evergreen Park are different from those in Chicago, Evergreen Park teachers said they were impressed by the Chicago teachers’ strike.
“We had our own issues, along with they had their own issues,” one Evergreen Park teacher said. “I think their strength was inspirational to us.”
Evergreen Park teacher Maria Gibson said, “We can’t allow ourselves to get bullied. You know, that’s the bottom line.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, no new talks had been scheduled, so the 1,800 students will be will out of class again on Wednesday.