School board approves contract

By Shannon Smith

Champaign School Board members approved a three-year contract Thursday night with Champaign Educational Services Personnel, the support staff union of the school district, bringing an end to the negotiations that almost resulted in a strike.

The support staff, which includes attendance staff, bus drivers, food service workers, maintenance workers, secretarial staff, teachers’ aides and other non-certified employees, had been working without a contract since its last one expired June 30, 2004. The school board first proposed the approved contract on Feb. 1 to prevent a strike by the union just hours before it was to begin.

Margie Skirvin, member of the school board, said the five board members present at Thursday’s meeting voted unanimously to approve the contract. Two of the seven school board members were unable to attend the meeting – one was out-of-town and the other had health issues.

“We all slept better when it was done,” Skirvin said. “Everybody did.”

Skirvin said it was not just the negotiators who were glad to settle the contract but the community as a whole.

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“I can’t tell you the relief,” she said. “And the whole community’s relieved. Part of sending your kids to public school is being able to know that they’re safe and getting the best treatment possible. And the support staff is a big part of that.”

A major difficulty in getting a contract negotiated was the district’s budget deficit. Last summer, it was discovered that budget miscalculations left the district in a near $5 million deficit.

“It was brought to our attention that we were supposedly rolling in dough when we weren’t,” Skirvin said.

She said this budget deficit is very difficult on employees, when nearly 80 percent of the school district’s costs go towards paying staff members.

“They (the support staff) wanted higher raises and the school board is cutting $2 million out of our budget this year,” Skirvin said. “We wanted to be fair, but we certainly couldn’t offer as much as we would have liked.”

Skirvin said the future is also on the mind of people in the district.

“It’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle,” Skirvin said. “We also need to think about where we’re headed.”

Skirvin said another major difficulty in the negotiations was trying to meet the needs of a wide variety of people.

“We have a bunch of different points of views,” Skirvin said. “It’s really hard for a whole bunch of people with a whole bunch of issues to come together. These people are all over the board in terms of what they perform and what sort of educational experience they have.”

Tom Grimsey, president of the Champaign Educational Service Professionals, played a major role in negotiations for the union side. He said that in the end, both parties seemed satisfied with the contract.

“I think it gives stability to both the district and the union,” Grimsey said.

The finalized contract is active for three years. Grimsey said this comes as a relief to many employees.

“I think it takes a lot of stress off the employees,” he said. “They know there is job security for the next three years.”

Skirvin agreed that the three-year life of the contract is a benefit.

“It was a tough process,” Skirvin said. “I think at the end, we were all kind of relieved that we were all at a place we could live with. Since it’s a three-year contract, it really gives us some stability. And that’s a good thing, since we’re starting contract negotiations with the teachers soon.”

Grimsey said that support staff workers were much more relaxed Friday at work, knowing they have security.

“The attitude of the staff is greatly improved,” he said.

Grimsey added that even though negotiations were able to come to a satisfying close, workers and negotiators did not really celebrate.

“That’s something we usually don’t do,” Grimsey said. “It’s a job for us. In this contract, there will be some things that will need to be looked over next year. It is a continuous cycle, just not on as grand of a scale.”

Nancy Hoetker, president of the Barkstall Elementary School Parent Teacher Association, said students and parents are relieved the contract was finalized without a strike.

“It certainly got to the point that it made the community nervous,” Hoetker said. “But it took as long as it needed to make a fair resolution.”

Hoetker said that it is a continuous goal of the community to maintain and improve the school system. She said that keeping the staff happy is crucial to the goal.

“We hope that the (upcoming) teacher contract negotiations go more smoothly and don’t reach a crisis point,” Hoetker said. “I think the latest incident drove home how much all staff in the school are vital and valued.”