Hours before the District 209 school board meeting on Wednesday evening at Proviso East High School in Maywood, dozens of Proviso Teachers Union (PTU) members picketed along 1st Avenue.

The protest continued a few hours later, with at least 150 teachers and their supporters pouring into the school’s auditorium for the meeting.

As tensions build during contract negotiations between the D209 administration and PTU, members of the union are pleading with school board members to appoint at least one board representative to the negotiating team, which currently only includes administrators, such as D209 Supt. James Henderson, and D209 attorney William F. Gleason.

The union has claimed that Supt. Henderson has not negotiated in good faith, has not abided by ground rules set by both parties last year and has been generally unwilling to make himself available on weekends and after 6 p.m., when teachers are just wrapping up their schooldays.

The presence of an additional board member, the union argues, may help spur an otherwise tense negotiation process toward a resolution and stave off a strike that the union has set for Friday. The process has been facilitated by a federal mediator since July 2021.

During the Feb. 15 board meeting, D209 board member Amanda Grant introduced a motion to open board discussion about the possibility of adding two board members to the district’s negotiating team.

Board members Ned Wagner and Claudia Medina voiced support for the measure, which was not on that night’s agenda and was not up for a formal vote that evening.

Board members Della Patterson, Theresa Kelly and Sam Valtierrez, along with board President Rodney Alexander, all voted against the measure.

Those against Grant’s motion argued that the board had already decided against appointing a board representative to the negotiating team and that doing so now would be too late in the game.

They added that a board member’s presence during the negotiations is largely muted and they can’t impact the negotiations, anyway.

“Two board members cannot speak on behalf of the board at that meeting. They can make suggestions but they will not be binding,” Alexander said. “They cannot speak for the board at the negotiating table.”

Alexander said that Gleason has provided the board with regular communication about the status of negotiations and the board has given the administration its directives.

“They’re negotiating within the terms and conditions that this board gave them,” he said.

Patterson said that she’s been part of contract negotiations in the past and was not pleased with the experience.

“I sat in on negotiations,” she said. “When they had board members sitting there, what happened is sometimes the board member was out-talking the attorney.”

But board members in favor of adding board representation to the negotiations said that it is rare for a school board, and the D209 school board in particular, to not appoint board representatives to the bargaining team.

“We’ve done this before,” Grant said, adding that she’s been part of union negotiations in the past, as well.

“I would turn off my microphone, because [the negotiating sessions] were all virtual,” she said. “I’d turn my video camera off, but I could sit and listen and if I had a question I could message someone on our side and ask a clarifying question. I really think it’s important that we have board members on the negotiation team.”

“The history of this board has been there has been a board member on the negotiating team,” Medina said.

Jennifer Hill, a spokesperson for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the PTU’s parent union, said that boards not appointing representatives to sit on bargaining teams is an anomaly.

“This is pretty rare,” she said, adding that “the other side will typically include board members and their attorneys.”

Calls were also made to the Illinois Association of School Boards and the Illinois Council of School Attorneys, but representatives from those organizations were not immediately available for comment.

The union and the district continue to be at odds over the number of class periods, salary raises and class sizes. The next bargaining session is scheduled for Feb. 23, after the Feb. 18 strike date. Riley said on Tuesday that the two sides can schedule more sessions before the strike date, but so far none have been set.

District 200 administrators and spokespeople have been unavailable for comment since contract negotiations began last year. 

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