Champaign schools support personnel prepare to strike

By Shannon Smith

Champaign Educational Support Personnel members met Saturday morning at Jefferson Middle School and passed a resolution to strike on a vote of 267 to 6.

Members of the union planning to strike include attendance staff, bus drivers, food service workers, maintenance workers, secretarial staff, teachers’ aides and other non-certified employees.

The union has been working on settling a new contract since their last contract expired in June. After little progress, they filed an intent to strike in December. According to the News-Gazette, Saturday’s meeting was planned earlier this month to approve a contract offered by the school board or take a strike vote.

Union negotiators offered a compromise on Friday morning, which proposed an increase of $50,000 a year for the three-year duration of the contract. But it was not enough for the entire school board to agree with.

“That’s not a large amount when you consider the life of the contract,” said Beth Shepperd, assistant superintendent for human resources and community relations. “The board members’ perspective is (that) they must eliminate a budget deficit and no amount is too small.”

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    Workers will continue to work as normal Monday and Tuesday of this week. However, picketing is planned to begin at 7 a.m. Wednesday morning. Schools are still scheduled to be open if there is a strike.

    Tom Grimsey, president of the Champaign Educational Service Professionals, said it will be difficult for schools to maintain a strong staff if a strike takes place.

    “We actually think that a strike at this time will cripple them greatly,” Grimsey said. “They may be able to work with a skeleton staff. The big question is whether they have enough people who are qualified for these jobs.”

    Shepperd said the administration has made arrangements to ensure the schools will stay open.

    One major concern for the students and parents is the lack of yellow school bus service. While these buses will not be running if a strike goes through, Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District service will continue.

    “First of all, parents will be responsible for transporting their students to school if they ride the yellow school buses,” Shepperd said. “Other jobs will be compressed and handled by temporary workers or substitute workers. Teachers will not be expected to take the jobs of the support staff.”

    Shepperd said this lack of service will have some effect on the schools.

    “I think that to be realistic you would have to anticipate some decline in attendance, due to limited transportation,” Shepperd said.

    Kathleen Fox, library clerk at Carrie Busey Elementary School, said she does not see how schools can stay open.

    “We have a hard time getting subs now when we need them,” Fox said.

    Grimsey said he does not want parents or the community to misunderstand the goal of a potential strike.

    “It’s not our intention to put any student in harm,” Grimsey said. “The school board has put us in a predicament where we must do this.”

    Grimsey said there is still a chance that a contract will be settled before picketing is to take place on Wednesday. He said the school board is deadlocked three-to-three on giving union members the contract they would agree on.

    “I am under the impression the only thing that is keeping us right now from not going on strike is three board members: (Jeff) Wampler, (David) Sholem and (Nicole) Storch,” Fox said. “All it takes is one of them to abstain from voting to keep us from having a contract.”

    Grimsey said School Board President Scott Anderson has worked very well with union representatives to get the problem solved.

    “Dr. Anderson could use all the help he can get to put pressure on the other members of the school board to get this done,” Grimsey said.

    Shepperd said that all district employees are hopeful that a contract will be settled and a strike will be averted. However, without complete certainty, union members are making plans for action.

    “I pray there is that chance that things get settled,” Fox said. “But our union is still going ahead with strike preparations. I’m picking up signs (Monday).”

    Fox said the union has set up a food bank, babysitting services and car pools to help members while the strike is taking place.

    “We are doing anything we can do to help our members that will really be hurt by this strike,” Fox said. “We have a lot of couples that will have both people affected by the strike and single parents who will be a part of it too. Some of us won’t be affected as hard as others.”

    Shepperd said that even though Wednesday is just days away, there is optimism that something will be settled.

    “That’s certainly everyone’s hope, and there’s definitely a chance that could happen,” Shepperd said. “Both sides are still open to negotiation.”