DeKALB – DeKalb School District 428 board members approved a new three-year contract the teachers' union Tuesday, ending any possibility of a strike.
Board members met in closed session for about 35 minutes and had no public discussion Tuesday morning before approving the new contract by a 5-0 vote, with two board members abstaining.
The move means district students will begin the school year today knowing they will return to class Thursday. The DeKalb Classroom Teachers' Association announced last week that its members would strike Thursday if a deal wasn't reached by Tuesday night.
"That was a driving factor for all of us," school board President Tom Matya said. "We wanted to make sure we had a fair deal for our taxpayers, and obviously they wanted a fair deal. But no one wanted to go on strike, and that's what brought the sides together."
Board members Nina Fontana and Cohen Barnes abstained from the vote because both have relatives who teach in the district. Nina Fontana's son, T.J. Fontana, is the teachers' union spokesman.
The new contract includes a hard freeze on teacher salaries for the upcoming school year. For 2014-15, the contract allows for a 1.1 percent pay-scale increase and a "step" increase of 2.12 percent, and for 2015-16, the "step" increase remains the same, but the pay scale increases an additional 1.25 percent.
"We feel good about this new contract," T.J. Fontana said. "Our membership here is understanding of the times that we're in. We knew that this was not going to be a lucrative financial contract."
District 428 is facing a $2.7 million budget deficit for the upcoming school year, which school officials will cover using reserve funds. The district received a $21 million construction grant in 2011 and is free to use that money however it sees fit.
"This will help us a great deal with our budget," Matya said. "It doesn't solve all of our problems, but we knew that. The teachers really stepped up to the plate and helped us."
In return, the board backed off on its hopes that teachers would agree to work additional time before and after school to help with bus operations. Currently that process is facilitated by teaching assistants, and it will continue that way, Matya said.
"We did give up our request for additional time for the teachers, but we are going to continue to work with [the teachers] on some solutions to make sure that we ensure the safety of our students," he said.
According to supplemental documents provided by the district, teachers in Genoa-Kingston District 424, Somonauk District 432, Indian Creek District 425, Hiawatha District 426, Geneva District 304 and Hinckley-Big Rock District 429 all work at least a half hour of additional time before or after school.
T.J. Fontana, the teachers' union spokesman, didn't offer any insight into why this time was important for DeKalb teachers.
Before the conclusion of Tuesday's short meeting, Matya took a moment to address why the negotiation process, which began in January, took so long.
"I think a lot of people look and think, 'Why did it take nine months?' " he said. "I think the answer to that is, the contract is a pretty extensive document – 78 pages – and it was reviewed page by page. There were a lot of things that were outdated, a lot of language changes ... and those things took time to work through."
Barnes thanked the negotiators for their efforts.
"On behalf of the board, the amount of time and energy that you guys spent on this, we understand and really appreciate – and I know our teachers appreciate the time and energy that was spent on this as well," he said. "I want to say thank you."
T.J. Fontana said that despite perceived tensions that were exacerbated by the DCTA's filing of a notice of intent to strike with the state Aug. 8, the negotiation process was smooth.
"You're not going to hear a negative word from me about the way the process was handled," he said. "Of course, we're not going to agree on everything ... but it was never an issue of bad faith negotiating. It was a positive process, and I respect the people that put a lot time into this."