8/18/07

Teachers union keeps Illinois town on edge

In 2004, Christopher Webb would spend his evenings waiting for the 10 p.m. news instead of studying. The 2006 Harlem High School graduate was wondering whether his teachers would be in class or on the picket line the next morning.

Today, Webb has a different vantage point. The rookie Harlem School Board member finds himself at the epicenter of eleventh-hour negotiations with the Harlem Federation of Teachers union.

But even in his position, Webb's grasp on the situation is hardly any better than it was as a Harlem High School student three years ago, he said. He's not alone. With just two days left to settle contracts with the teachers and support staff and avert a strike, there’s a lot of uncertainty in the district. "I remember watching the teachers on the front lawn of the high school with their signs," Webb said of the nine-day teachers strike. "It really sucked."

Recently, talks between the union and the administration have broken down, with a strike becoming a more likely scenario with each passing day.

Union leaders have planned two general assembly meetings Sunday and Monday so members can either approve tentative contracts or discuss strike plans.

Harlem administrators are preparing for a strike but remain hopeful that school will not be delayed for the second time in three years.

Late for the bell

Superintendent Pat DeLuca said he is confident that students will not miss any school.

But if there is a strike, plans are in place.

The School District will notify parents and students each night through media reports and on its Web site about the status of the contract, DeLuca said.

For athletes, a strike can cost them part of their season.

The golf, soccer and football programs would likely have to forfeit games, said Shane Turner, Harlem's athletic director. A strike could also jeopardize Harlem's eligibility in early-season tournaments.

Other fall sports do not start until late August and early September.

But football players are required by the Illinois High School Association to practice a minimum number of days before the team can play, Turner said.

The Harlem High School football team will reach the minimum of 14 days of practice on Thursday, and Turner said volunteers would coach the team if there is a work stoppage to ensure that the state mandate is met.

But games are a different matter.

"No games can be played while they are on strike," Turner said.

The first game, on Friday, pits the Harlem Huskies against the Belvidere North Blue Thunder - that team's inaugural game. If Harlem can't play, a forfeit victory goes to Belvidere North.

"I hope it's something we don't have to experience," said Karen Reynolds, Belvidere North athletic director. "You don't want to take a win by forfeit."

Besides, she said, hers is a young team, and she’s hoping to gauge how well they do in their first contest.

"You never really know (how well they'll play) until you see them play against somebody else," she said. "We're keeping our fingers crossed for Harlem."

Turner said it may be possible to reschedule the game if the two teams can agree on an alternative date.

"Last year, I had to move a football game from a Friday to a Saturday because of the weather," he said. "So it can be moved. But hopefully, we'll be in school on Tuesday and it'll all be water under the bridge."

Support for the teachers

Deb Keller's family is no stranger to contract disputes.

Keller has six children enrolled in Harlem schools this year, and most of them were in school at the time of the 2004 strike. At the dinner table, the family has discussed the possibility that they will not return to school on the first scheduled day.

"The older children are old enough that we can talk about it," said Keller, the parent-teacher organization president for Parker Early Education Center. "They are in support of the teachers, and they want the teachers to get a fair deal. None of us want to see them settle just to settle."

The family sides with the teachers because they accepted a wage and benefit freeze that helped, in part, to revive the School District's finances. Harlem has rebounded and has surplus projections of about $11 million for this year.

"We bent over backward ... three years ago," said Lynn Kearney, president of the Harlem Federation of Teachers. "Now they have money, and people need to be paid appropriately."

For students, the wait is tedious, something Webb understands.

"When you are a student, your life is school," he said. "All your friends are there."

Contracts by Sunday?

The administration believes it will have tentative contracts for the teachers and the support staff - teaching assistants, secretaries, bus drivers and other noncertified workers - ready for the union’s vote by Sunday afternoon.

Harlem officials say it's not uncommon to reach an agreement hours before a strike. But union members must have 24 hours to review it. So teachers won't return to class until 24 hours after a tentative deal is reached.

Teachers are scheduled to return to school Monday for an institute day, to ready their classrooms and prepare for the first day.

High school freshmen and students at seven of the district's nine elementary schools and the middle school are scheduled to start Tuesday. All high school students will return Wednesday, and Parker Center students go back Thursday.

Plans for lost days

To absorb the school days that would be lost during a work stoppage, the School District will shorten winter and spring breaks, the superintendent said.

Maple Elementary students would have their schooling shaken up the most, having finished three weeks of school. The children would be forced out of the classroom while teachers, who have been working under an old contract, joined the picket lines.

Maple uses a modified schedule that has students in class nine weeks and then off two weeks. While classes there start earlier in the summer, the school year ends at the same time others in Harlem do.

So in the case of a strike, the two-week breaks would be shortened.

"They are all settled in, and they are all into a routine," DeLuca said. "That would be more disruptive."

(rrstar.com)

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