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Harrisburg school board rejects contract with teachers

Posted on 2/22/2017, 8:11 AM

HARRISBURG -- The Harrisburg Unit 3 school board did not approve a tentative agreement with Harrisburg Education Association teachers Tuesday, leaving the union ready to pursue options including filing an intent to strike.

A sea of Harrisburg purple filled the cafetorium at Harrisburg Middle School, as many union educators sat and waited for the board to end its closed session. The Harrisburg school board, for a number of years, typically votes to enter a closed session almost immediately after convening a meeting.

Just prior to 7:30 p.m., the closed session ended and the teachers were invited into the HMS Media Center, where the open meeting reconvened.

After brief discussion of other agenda items, a request for a motion to approve the HEA contract was made three times. No board member made such a motion.

Superintendent Mike Gauch then read a statement.

"The board of education was unable tonight to approve the terms of the 2016-2018 teacher contract. From the board's perspective, the collective bargaining agreement needs to be changed to reflect an agreement the board believes it had with the HEA during negotiations over the last collective bargaining agreement to eliminate the borrowing of sick leave.

"This change was somehow not reflected in the expiring agreement, so the board made the elimination of the language a priority again during the most recent round of negotiations. The board of education does not believe it can agree to another agreement as long as this provision remains in the contract. In addition, some board members have voiced concerns with approving a collective bargaining agreement that will cause it to have to reduce staff or to eliminate programs and will not enable it to fill positions following retirements.

"The decision to reduce staff is also being postponed so that the school district and the HEA can finish their negotiations over the reduction in force. The bargaining law in Illinois allows the teachers' union the opportunity to present the board of education with a proposal that might cause it to reconsider the need to reduce staff.

"The board of education stated repeatedly during recent teacher negotiations as a basis for the board's wage proposal that it could not accept a settlement that required it to cut teachers or programs. Unfortunately, to avoid a work stoppage and a school closure, the board had tentatively agreed to an economic settlement that was beyond its means financially -- "

Several teachers in the audience laughed out loud in the middle of Gauch's statement at that point.

" -- without having to make sacrifices," Gauch continued. "At no time when the board tentatively agreed to the economic settlement did it indicate that there would not have to be reductions in order to afford it."

The media center was quiet for a few moments after the statement was finished. The board finished its agenda and adjourned and the flood of purple politely yet determinedly receded through the doors to the hall.

HEA President and lead negotiator Debbie McGowan said she and other teachers felt the board had not acted in good faith by rejecting the contract that tentatively was agreed upon in late December.

"They offered us money, and now they've taken it away after they forced us to vote on it," McGowan said.

The union voted on Jan. 3 to approve the contract.

She said immediately prior to the board's non-action, the board was willing to approve the contract if the union would agree to the language allowing borrowing of sick time being stricken. The language in question allows a teacher to borrow up to 15 days of sick time from the future school year, McGowan said.

McGowan told teachers gathered outside after the meeting that she would contact the Illinois Education Association representative for the HEA to determine what legal options the union may pursue.

When one teacher asked whether the union at this point had a right to file an intent-to-strike notice, McGowan said she will be learning all options available.

"My recommendation is if we can do it, we will do it," she said. "Guys, I will let all of you know tomorrow."

She also said the board's statement regarding the language about borrowing sick days was mentioned very early on in negotiations, and that the union was surprised the board cited that particular clause as a sticking point.

"It was a piece of language that they didn't want, but it did not get removed," she said. "This is the first we've heard of it."

Immediately after the meeting, Gauch said he wanted to get back to negotiations.

"I hope we can get back to the table," he said.