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Teachers say no to "cooling off period"

Dixon Education Association President Sandra Sodergren-Baar (left) listens to a parent 
address the school board during a meeting Feb. 27 at Reagan Middle School.
Dixon Education Association President Sandra Sodergren-Baar (left) listens to a parent address the school board during a meeting Feb. 27 at Reagan Middle School.

DIXON – The school board asked Sunday for a three-week "cooling off period" for striking teachers to return to school as negotiations continue, said board President Tom Balser.

The Dixon Education Association rejected the proposal.

No agreement was reached after 12 hours of talks Sunday, despite some movement by both parties. Talks will continue at noon today.

Teachers have been on strike since Feb. 28 and a ninth day of classes will be canceled today. Both sides remain apart on salary, health insurance and retirement.

Balser said the state board of education is requiring the district to take its Illinois Standard Achievement Tests within the next two weeks, or face losing its recognition status. Balser said the district will lose about $280,000 in this time that cannot be recovered, even if the days are made up.

The board has said in previous press releases it will not use replacement teachers to proctor these tests. The board said Sunday it will continue to work with the state board to figure out another way to complete the standardized tests.

"We're hopelessly deadlocked," said Balser, who told 200 to 300 people in attendance for a question-and-answer session with Superintendent Michael Juenger and the board president. "If it goes another week, it will get increasingly difficult to settle."

Also, Illinois Press Association attorney Josh Sharp said the school board violated the Open Meetings Act on Friday before it met with teachers for contract talks, according to a report from Union President Sandi Sodergren-Baar.

Sodergren-Baar said when teachers arrived at the central office Friday for talks, "the entire board of education was upstairs, with the exception of Mr. [Kevin] Sward," conducting its own meeting before negotiations took place.

The board's attorney Stan Eisenhammer defended the board's actions, saying it did not violate the act, because of an exemption in the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act.

According to the Open Meetings Act, for three board members to meet outside of contract negotiations – the majority of a quorum – an agenda must be posted at least 48 hours before the meeting at the district's central office or on its website.

Friday's meeting was not posted on the district's website and the media was not notified.

However, the state's educational labor relations act says: "the provisions of the Open Meetings Act shall not apply to collective bargaining negotiations and grievance arbitrations conducted pursuant to this Act."

Sharp said since this meeting was said to be conducted before bargaining, it would be in violation.

"You have to have notice of the meeting, gavel in, then go to closed session," Sharp said.

Eisenhammer said the board can call a closed session meeting without public notice as long as the conversation sticks to collective bargaining. For two previous meetings, the board posted an agenda to meet as a whole outside of negotiations. The board's attorney said it was unnecessary but done as a courtesy.

In an email to Sauk Valley Media, Sodergren-Baar said, "When we asked the mediator about who was in attendance upstairs (which is our common practice), he said that [board members] Mr. [Woody] Lenox, Mr. [Tom] Lemoine, Mr. [Jim] Schielein and Ms. [Pam] Tourtillott were at the table in addition to the two lawyers, Mr. Juenger, [Assistant Superintendent] Mrs. [Margo] Empen and [business manager] Mr. [David] Blackburn."

She added: "While the mediator was upstairs, Mr. [John] Jacobs exited the building through the front door, passing our negotiation team, which is seated in the same area. During the same time period, our DEA members saw Mr. [Tom] Balser exit through the front gate where they were picketing. He did not pass by our team as did Mr. Jacobs."

Eisenhammer also called the accusation a "cheap shot" by the union.

"Usually this goes the other way and they say 'the message isn't getting to the whole board,'" Eisenhammer said. " ... The whole board can be present."

Sodergren-Baar also was not happy about a news release from Juenger posted on the district's website and now defunct Facebook page that referred to an offer she said had yet to be shown to the union.

Juenger said the offer posted was the same one the board offered on March 5.

She also objected to Juenger doing TV interviews during negotiation sessions.

"These types of behaviors are highly unprofessional, inappropriate and unproductive when you are negotiating in closed session and trying to reach an agreement," Sodergren-Baar said.

In its latest offer, the board is offering teachers a soft freeze in the first year, meaning only those who qualify for step increases would get a raise of between 1 percent and 2 percent. The board was offering a 1.5 percent raise with no step increases in the second and third year, and in the fourth year a 2 percent raise with no steps. However, the board said it will pay increases for lane movements, which are salary increases based on advancing education.

Heading into Friday, the Dixon Education Association was asking for 2 percent to be added to the salary schedule for each of the next 4 years, in addition to pay step increases for experience and education. This would be a 3 percent to 4 percent pay increase for teachers who qualify for step increases.


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