Twice this week, dozens of Prairie Grove School District 46 paraprofessionals, bus drivers and other staff rallied along Route 176, calling for “a fair living wage.”
The union that represents the workers, the Prairie Grove Education Support Professionals, has been in negotiations with the district for a new contract since February, and the two sides did not reach agreement during their latest collective bargaining agreement meeting on Aug. 25, which lasted until 2 a.m., union President Trisha Meyers said.
A federal mediator was brought in to assist in the negotiations, said Prairie Grove Superintendent John Bute, who added recent meetings have been “somewhat successful,” but it was unfortunate that they had not yet come to an agreement.
He said the district’s relationship with staff represented by the union has been “very positive” during his tenure.
“It’s a diverse group,” Bute said of the impacted staff. “I have a good working relationship with that leadership. Prairie Grove is a fantastic district where we respect and love our employees. Are we thrilled with what is happening right now? No. Do we want to have a contract that is fair and competitive? One hundred percent, yes we do.”
The protesters included a collection of district staff including bus drivers, custodians, and paraprofessionals who said they feel their wages and benefits have not kept up with inflation and are not competitive with other districts or jobs.
“It’s hard to pay bills and make ends meet,” bus driver Resa Riess said. “They are not offering something that makes that possible.”
Staffing shortages have also increased tensions and stress among staff, and more bus drivers are considering leaving the district if a settlement isn’t reach soon, bus driver Janeli Suarez said.
“We are the first and last people that see the children,” Suarez said, adding her own child attends Prairie Grove Elementary School. “We are always here, in rain or snow or sleet. We care about the students too. People in the community have no idea what is going on.”
The district is currently down two bus drivers out of 13, Riess said, leading to longer bus routes on days there are sports trips or other events.
Currently, the staff are working under the terms of the previous contract, which ended June 30, Meyers said. Negotiations for the current school year began in February.
Bute told the school board during its Tuesday meeting that from the board’s perspective, the district needed to balance increasing pay for staff with “financial concerns” and the goal was to be “towards the middle of the marketplace” when compared to other school districts.
Currently, starting salaries for support staff in the district range from just over $14 per hour for paraprofessionals to $21 per hour for head custodians. Although Meyers said she makes more than the base paraprofessional rate, it bothers her that after 16 years, she makes less than the cafeteria supervisors who earn $27 per hour.
The terms of each side’s last offers were posted Friday to the Illinois Educational Relations Labor Board, a step required by law before a union can strike. This step can be initiated by either side or the mediator at least 15 days after mediation began.
A union must wait at least 14 days after the postings to strike and must also provide a written 10-day notice of intent to strike.
According to the the union’s last offer, both sides are looking to agree on a five-year contract. The union requested a 5% raise for the next two years, followed by a 3.75% raise for the 2024-25 school year and 3% raises for the 2025-26 and 2026-27 school years.
The district proposed 5% for for the first year followed by 3.5% for the 2023-24 and 3% for each fo the last three years of the five-year contract, the posting of its last offer shows.
Both the board and union documents agree that the difference in total salary increases amounts to $30,000 over the five-year period.
The possibility of longevity stipends for long-time staff members are not in the district’s current proposal but could still be on the table, Bute said.
Bute said another sticking point, the lack of paid vacation time in the board’s current proposal, is compensated by the greater pay rates and under the board’s current proposal, this year’s salaries would be higher across all staff categories than previous years plus prior vacation time payouts.
According to a report from the National Education Association, the average salary for education support staff nationwide was $35,000 last year, but that number, when adjusted for inflation, represents a decrease in value over a 10-year period.
The reports indicates salaries in Illinois are slightly higher than the national rate, averaging roughly $36,700, which ranks 15th among states.
“This is a great district,” Meyers said. “My daughter went to school here. We are just looking for a fair settlement. When you have 17-year-olds who are making more money in retail than I am after 16 years here, that’s ridiculous.”
The two sides will meeting again the morning of Sept. 24, unless an agreement is reached before then, Bute said.