Late agreement prevents strike

By Shannon Smith

Champaign school board members and union representatives averted the support staff strike by reaching a tentative settlement in the 11th hour of negotiations Tuesday night.

Tom Grimsey, president of the Champaign Educational Service Professionals, said the school board held an emergency meeting Tuesday at 4:30 p.m.

“They called me a few minutes to 7 p.m. as a last ditch effort,” Grimsey said. “I got my negotiation team together and we headed over there. We actually reviewed the proposal and signed it at 7:35 p.m. (Tuesday) night.”

The last-minute effort proved to be a close call. Grimsey said the union gave the school board an 8 p.m. deadline for a counterproposal in order for the union to not strike on Wednesday.

Grimsey said that while the board’s proposal is not exactly what the union asked for, it was close.

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    “You’re never 100 percent satisfied,” Grimsey said. “You never get everything you have to have. What we did receive is close. As far as the financial package goes, it’s about 85-90 percent of what we asked for.”

    The proposal still needs to be finalized with members of the union and then again with the school board, but union members reported to work on Wednesday as usual. Grimsey said he plans to set a meeting for Saturday morning where union members will vote whether or not to ratify the proposal.

    “When we sign on the dotted line, I’ll be much more relieved,” Grimsey said.

    The tentative proposal was enough to ease the mind of some support staff workers.

    “I’m relieved because we don’t get paid when we strike,” said Julie Freeman, secretary at Champaign Central High School. “The pay is the biggest thing for me because I’m a single mom with two kids, and when I don’t get paid, it’s bad.”

    Dennis Sparks, assistant principal of Champaign Central High School, said the last few weeks have been emotional for the support staff at his school.

    “People were very nervous, but still did a very good job of doing their jobs,” Sparks said. “People were very relieved emotionally.”

    Sparks said he is also grateful that some consensus was reached.

    “We have a lot of very talented support staff and they are a very big part of our school day,” Sparks said. “They are a big part of why we are able to offer what we do.”

    By averting a strike, students in Champaign schools were able to attend school as normal Wednesday. If the strike had occurred, bus service and other vital support services would have been affected.

    “There would be a number of kids out,” Freeman said. “Since there would be so many kids out, the teachers would be reluctant to do anything in the classes that day. There wouldn’t have been any teachers’ aides for special education. The secretaries wouldn’t have been able to answer the phones, either. That would have caused a strain.”

    Nancy Holm, president of the PTA Council, has two daughters of her own in the Champaign school system. She said she is thankful that the school environment is back to normal.

    “Prior to the settlement, I had some e-mails from parents concerned there wouldn’t be aides for their special education students,” Holm said. “People were concerned the strike would cost us so much more money if we had to call other workers to come in. Those in elementary school were concerned that those students couldn’t get to schools without the yellow buses.”

    Holm said these fears did not have to be realized, however, because both sides worked together to get things settled.

    “We’re pleased that both sides were flexible enough to reach an agreement and not hold out,” Holm said. “It benefits the whole community to have the schools running.”

    Grimsey said he did not think the whole ordeal had to go this far.

    “The biggest disappointment is that it went down to a deadline,” Grimsey said. “We could have reached the same kind of decision earlier in the year. It didn’t have to come to a strike threat.”

    But Grimsey said he was somewhat relieved that negotiations have settled down and that a strike was averted.

    “On a whole, a strike is never beneficial for anyone,” Grimsey said. “It causes internal strife within the district. It also causes hardships for the students, and that’s our biggest concern.”

    “I know a lot of these kids personally and they were so glad to see that we were here today,” Freeman said.