Education

As union negotiations stall, Sycamore teachers, district disagree on salary: ‘We’re asking for what’s fair’

“We’re not asking for the moon or an outstanding increase,” said Sycamore Education Association president Lynnae Ihm. “We’re just asking for what’s fair. For the district to not invest in teachers is irresponsible to the community.”

About 200 members of the Sycamore Education Association attended the school board meeting held Tuesday, Jan. 11, at Sycamore High School. Negotiations between the Sycamore Education Association and Sycamore School District 427 are still ongoing, and no agreement has yet been reached. Their previous contract expired 164 days ago on July 31, 2021.

SYCAMORE – After almost eight months of ongoing negotiations between the Sycamore teachers’ union and district administration, both sides remain at an impasse over compensation and the duration of the next labor pact, according to records released Friday.

Open issues that still are being negotiated include salary, health insurance costs, and stipends for extra-curricular activities such as coaches and the contract’s duration, according to documents posted publicly to the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board. The documents also outline the competing salary offers made by both the Sycamore Education Association and the district. No resolution has been reached in the months-long negotiations, representatives for both parties said Friday.

“As an association, we are disappointed to say the least,” said Lynnae Ihm, union president special education teacher at West Elementary School. “The public finally has a better understanding, and we can point out our differences.”

As of Friday, the SEA, which is a union of about 280 teachers, has worked 181 days on a contract that expired July 31, according to district documents. The prior contract went into effect in 2019. Stalled negotiations have spurred a vigil and several demonstrations at Sycamore school board meetings, with hundreds of Sycamore educators and community members showing up to protest the delayed action.

About 200 members of the Sycamore Education Association attended the school board meeting held Tuesday, Jan. 11, at Sycamore High School. Negotiations between the Sycamore Education Association and Sycamore School District 427 are still ongoing, and no agreement has yet been reached. Their previous contract expired 164 days ago on July 31, 2021.

In the proposed offer, the Sycamore teachers’ union says negotiations began in early 2021 when Superintendent Steve Wilder – who started the leadership position in 2020 as the pandemic began – proposed extending the existing contract for three years.

“In January 2021, rather than commence with Sycamore’s long-standing tradition of good-faith negotiations, the district superintendent suggested a simple extension to the current 3-year contract,” according to the union.

“This proposed extension did not include clarity, rationale or scope. Due to this unprecedented break in procedure, the SEA could not accept such terms,” according to the union.

In a response published by the Sycamore district Friday morning, administrators said district and union representatives have been bargaining since May 14, 2021 for a new contract.

Negotiations are made between six members of the SEA bargaining team, three members of the district’s bargaining team and a federal mediator in New York.

“Since August, we have had a federal mediator because there was not enough progress being made,” said union spokesperson Jake Brens, who teaches eighth grade language arts at Sycamore Middle School.

Brens said the union feels that continual delay of a new contract means the district doesn’t value the work of teachers.

“Sycamore has always been a destination for quality teachers and had a reputation for being a quality district,” Brens said. “We’ve always felt like family. This past year has greatly damaged that sense of being valued. … Teachers have always been problem solvers, but at some point, you hit your breaking point. You can’t say you value teachers and yet this negotiation process is still ongoing.”

Brens said that the SEA’s biggest sticking point is not being able to agree on a salary schedule, which determines the pay of teachers based on their level of education and teaching experience.

“The district made it very clear they wanted to get rid of the salary schedule entirely, and we said that it is a non-negotiable,” Brens said. “One of the board’s goals is to significantly reduce the salary schedule. The district’s proposal will not attract new quality educators, and it is a life sentence of lower earnings for teachers. That’s not how you keep a school district vibrant.”

The SEA’s offer asks for: an appropriate application of the established salary schedule; an increase to teacher salaries and select stipend expenditures over a three-year period from 2021 to 2024; edits to the salary schedule in regard to pension Teacher Retirement System contributions; dependent low deductible for family coverage; coaching and extra-curricular stipend increases; and that salary and benefits are retroactive to the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year.

“Sycamore teachers have been frozen on their steps [pay raises] over the past three years while receiving less than the standard cost-of-living raise,” according to the union in its offer.

Wilder said Friday that wages are a big component of the negotiation disagreement and that years-long financial constraints at the district level are challenging.

“Even though salary is only one of the items, it’s a significant one,” Wilder said. “I hope that everybody recognizes that [the district] appreciates the work that all of our staff does, including our teachers. From our perspective, we still have a responsibility to plan for both long and short term. We’re trying to be fair and avoid the kind of cuts that happened a couple of years ago.”

Wilder said the school board remains optimistic about ongoing negotiations with the Sycamore union.

“We recognize that it’s taken some time and both sides have made their positions clear, but there’s also been movement throughout the process, Wilder said. “The documents both sides have shared show that there isn’t necessarily a chasm. We’re closer than we thought they were.”

A look at the requests

Sycamore Community School District 427 is offering union members step increases – annual set pay bumps – that gradually decline each year, from 3.5% in the 2021-2022 school year to 2.5% in the 2025-2026 school year. The most recent offer and cost summary, published Jan. 26, 2022, from the Sycamore CUSD 427 Board of Education, offers no additional extra-curricular stipends and factor changes, and the total cost would be $2,564,384. Step increases are reduced by 0.25% each school year.

The union, however, wants a larger amount for the yearly increases, citing the Illinois State Board of Education School Report Card data, which shows the average salary for teachers in Illinois increased by 8.8% from 2016 to 2021.

According to the union, during those same five years, the average teacher in the Sycamore School District has decreased by 0.5%, when central administrative salaries rose by over 6%.

As a result, Sycamore union members want a 4.49% increase to salary for the 2021-2022 school year, a 4.85% increase to salary for the 2022-2023 school year and 4.58% increase to salary for the 2023-2024 school year.

In response, district officials said administrators also took a pay cut in 2017 and 2018, and received annual salary increases in other years comparable to the amount teachers were given.

“There are a few instances of administrative salary increases in situations where the administrator’s job responsibilities were changed or required an adjustment relative to peer districts,” the district’s response letter reads.

Brens said that the SEA has hit its breaking point. The next scheduled negotiations meeting between the union and district is set for Thursday, Feb. 3.

“We hope our meeting next Thursday will be a very productive meeting, and we continue to prepare for other scenarios,” he said. “Publicly posting our offer is the next step in the bargaining process and a step prior to any decision to strike.”

Brens said that a strike is a next step in that process, but the union has not voted to do so yet.

“We want students in their classrooms, and we know how important it is for them to be in school,” Ihm said. “Our priority has been and will always be our students. ... We’re not asking for the moon or an outstanding increase. We’re just asking for what’s fair. For the district to not invest in teachers is irresponsible to the community. It’s showing them that teachers are not valued in Sycamore.”