Roughly two weeks after postponing a strike scheduled for Feb. 18, the Proviso Teachers Union announced Monday that it now plans to strike on Friday, March 4. 

The union and District 209 administrators could not come to a collective bargaining agreement during the most recent federally mediated session held Feb. 23, PTU leaders said. 

“We were hopeful after receiving a new offer from the district on Feb. 16 that Superintendent (James) Henderson was finally ready to bargain seriously,” PTU President Maggie Riley said on Feb. 28. 

Riley then criticized Henderson, who made a series of unsubstantiated claims in an incendiary document that may have only exacerbated the tensions between the two sides. 

The two-page document, addressed to Proviso community members and dated Feb. 20, accuses veteran teachers of “looking to line their pockets just prior to retiring.” 

Henderson also claimed that “the PTU leadership (not teachers), a small number of community members (from Westchester and Forest Park) and one Proviso Board of Education member” orchestrated the student-led walkout, which he says happened on Feb. 17. The walkout actually happened on Feb. 16. 

In addition, the superintendent said that he and the school board “want a starting teacher salary of $60,000, but the PTU leadership is more concerned with increasing salary bonuses for teachers nearing retirement. The PTU leadership’s veteran teachers are planning to cross the picket line, in order to preserve their final years’ income, leaving less experienced teachers to shoulder the costs of the strike.”

Henderson said the PTU wants to increase sick leave “in a tiered scheme which heavily favors teachers with more experience. According to the Illinois State Report Card, 50% of Proviso teachers are absent more than 10 days each academic school year, already — and now they’re asking for more days to be absent?” 

In perhaps his most incendiary claim, the superintendent alleged that PTU leadership “attempted to damage our athletic scholars by scheduling their original Feb. 18 strike in conflict with the Boys Class 4A Sectional Basketball Tournament, beginning on Feb. 19, 2022 — which would have caused our teams’ disqualification.”

PTU leaders rebutted Henderson’s claims in a series of statements released last week. On Feb. 22, union leaders said Proviso “teachers are disheartened to see your latest ‘update’ on negotiations. Once again, it is full of lies and mischaracterizations” before demanding that the superintendent show proof of his various claims. 

“You claimed that our Unions set the initial strike date of 2/18 to interfere with basketball playoffs,” the union stated. “Please provide proof. Again, you know the date was determined by the legal timeline required under the Labor Act as part of the first date on which a legal strike could occur.” 

The union also demanded that the superintendent provide proof of his claims that he and the board “have offered a written proposal for $60K starting teacher salary,” that “unions leaders orchestrated the student walkout” and that the union “prioritizes the needs of veteran educators and their retirement benefits over less veteran ones.” 

In his document, Henderson includes a screenshot of what he claims are the union’s demands for professional leaves and absences, which range from 14 days for non-tenured teachers to 35 days for teachers with at least 25 years’ experience. 

Union leaders, however, pointed to their most recent offer submitted to the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board (IELRB) last month, which they said has not changed. 

According to the offer, which is available on the IELRB’s website, the union is asking for teachers to be granted 14 days’ worth of paid sick leave each school term or seven days per semester “for any teacher who is hired to commence teaching during the second semester of a school term.” 

“If a teacher uses no more than two (2) sick leave days in a semester, the teacher shall receive an additional two (2) sick leave days per semester,” the offer reads. 

“Despite his lies and lack of transparency throughout the last year of negotiations, we wanted to give this superintendent one more chance to do what is right for our students, community, and educators,” Riley stated on Feb. 28. “But once again, he refused to commit time to the bargaining process or to compromise on critical issues. At the same time, he lied about our union’s proposals to parents and the community, throwing teachers’ goodwill back in our faces. We will not offer it again.” 

In a statement last week, D209 school board President Rodney Alexander struck a much milder tone. He said that during the Feb. 23 mediation session, the district offered salary increases of 7% over the course of a three-year contract. That’s closer to the union’s most recent offer on the IELRB’s website of a five-year contract, with a 5.7% pay raise each year. The district’s initial offer was a two-year contract, with no salary increase the first year and a 5% increase the second year. 

Alexander said the district also agreed to “a popular program in which Proviso 209 teachers who provide four years of advance notice of their planned retirement receive additional compensation of 6% during each of those years. The district proposes that participation in this program should be available only to teachers who have earned the minimum mandatory 20 years of service within Proviso 209.” The union’s offer is that the board provide the retirement incentive for any teacher who submits an “irrevocable letter of intent to resign and retire on or before June 30, 2026.”

Alexander said extending eligibility for the retirement incentive “to teachers who spent the bulk of their careers in other districts would irresponsibly shift the burden of this incentive to our taxpayers versus those of the community teachers previously taught.” 

The board president added that the district and union “are very close to agreement on the optimal student enrollment for both general education and PE classes,” with both sides agreeing, in principle, on “the concept of providing an additional $1,000 in compensation to teachers if average course enrollments for the semester exceed these targets. The union demands that this additional compensation be paid if average enrollment exceeds the target by even one student. We are continuing to discuss the appropriate threshold that would trigger an additional payment.”

On Feb. 28, Alexander stated the board is “disappointed that our educators are again contemplating this potential disruption to teaching and learning. However, this action was not unexpected as PTU has made several public statements about its plans to strike” 

The next scheduled negotiations, which have been facilitated by a federal mediator, are for Monday, March 7 and Wednesday, March 9. 

Alexander said, if the union strikes, the district “will notify all parents, students and staff of any school cancellations via robo-calls and emails as soon as possible on Thursday, March 3, as well as with a posting on the district website. If we receive such notice after 10:00 p.m., we will send emails only.” 

The PTU, which is Local 571 of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, represents 280 teachers, social workers, librarians and school counselors in District 209. The union’s members have been working without a contract for nearly a year.