The two largest labor unions in the Proviso Township high school district turned out in force last week to reject an administrative proposal asking employees to take a pay cut to help shrink an estimated deficit of $11 million. Teachers in the faculty union voted 306-1 not to take two weeks of unpaid furlough. In the support staff union, 107 members also said no to the proposal while nine voted in favor.
Superintendent Robert Libka said the votes leave administrators with little choice but to consider doling out pink slips in order to balance the district’s budget.
“I would speculate early that we’ll have to have some reductions in force,” Libka said. “I think ‘likely’ is a fair term.”
The third union in District 209, representing the custodial staff, did not give an official response to administrators by Oct. 5, which was the deadline for responding, Libka said. Several votes were supposedly taken by the members of the custodial union, and representatives of SEIU Local 73 were recommending that employees accept the furlough.
President of the custodial union Earl Watts declined to comment and referred questions to the superintendent.
District 209 adopted its spending plan in late September with the understanding that a $10.9 million deficit across its operating funds would be reported to the state. Administrators were optimistic they could reduce that gap to roughly $4.4 million over the course of the school year by making a number of spending cuts. The furlough plan was part of those cuts, according to Assistant Superintendent Nikita Johnson, and was expected to save the district $1.27 million.
The projected savings were outlined in a two-page letter sent to union members late last month.
“The request of the board that employees voluntarily accept a two-week furlough, an action that would severely disrupt teaching and learning, was deeply troubling to teachers,” faculty union President Mona Johnson said in a written statement. “The fact that teachers are in the midst of a contract agreed to by the board was another critical factor in the overwhelming rejection of the proposal.”
Teachers at Proviso’s three high schools are paid an average salary of $55,000, according to Johnson’s furlough proposal. Administrators were projecting $744,500 in savings.
Board of Education President Chris Welch emphasized that layoffs are still an option of last resort, but the school board’s primary focus is to balance the budget. The furlough was proposed after board members told administrators they would prefer not to begin cutting staff, as was the administration’s initial suggestion.
“Unfortunately, it appears the unions have clearly said no and we have to go back to the table and consider the original proposal,” Welch said. “Everything is back on the table. There’s a lot of things in the budget.”
Welch and others on the board have drawn criticism for the amount of money spent on outside vendors. Critics have pointed to six-figure contracts awarded to public relations firms, lobbyists and insurance brokers, all of which have political connections to school board members.
Welch said those contracts will be reviewed in light of the union votes, but fired back that allegations of budgetary bloat as a result of kickbacks are based on “assumptions.”
As of Oct. 5, Libka said it was unclear how many employees might be laid off. Administrators will meet this week to begin discussing how the district might reduce its deficit.