Proviso teachers and supporters march together on Friday, March 4, 2022, during a teachers strike outside of Proviso East High School on First Avenue in Maywood. | Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer

On Friday, March 4, members of the Proviso Teachers Union (PTU) Local 571, which represents 280 teachers and other staffers, including social workers and school counselors, picketed outside of all three high schools in District 209 — the first time a strike has happened in the district in 22 years. 

Teachers did not picket on Monday, which was a student non-attendance day due to the Casmir Pulaski holiday. They did, however, resume picketing on Tuesday after contract talks on Monday failed to produce an agreement. 

After the federal mediation session on Monday, District 209 school board president Rodney Alexander said the district did not accept the PTU’s new proposal of a “12.75% increase over the three-year contract (4% in the first year, 4.25% in second year, 4.5% in third year).” 

Earlier, representatives with the PTU and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the PTU’s parent organization, said District 209 Superintendent James Henderson, the district’s lead negotiator, turned down their offer to meet last Thursday. 

“We had offered a session yesterday to meet before today to try to avoid the strike and he refused to meet with us,” said Rachel Esposito, the president of Local 571 West Suburban Teachers Union, which includes 18 councils across Cook County and DuPage. 

Esposito, who was picketing across the street from Proviso East High School in Maywood, is among seven members of the PTU’s negotiating team. 

Supt. Henderson has declined multiple requests for comment to the Review throughout the negotiating process. 

As Esposito talked, PTU members paced the sidewalks holding signs that read “Proviso District 209 teachers need more than apples” and “Supporting teachers = supporting students.” 

In a statement released March 4, the school board’s Alexander said the district has increased its salary proposal, meeting the union’s demand for a three-year contract. The district has also offered annual pay raises of 3% in each year of the contract, which is up from the district’s previous offer of 2% in the first year of the contract and 2.5% in the second and third years. 

The union also wants bonuses for all teachers of $1,250 in the first year and $600 in the second year, Alexander said. 

“The district remains firm in our position that salary increases at the level being demanded by the union are neither sustainable, nor in the best fiscal interest of our parents and other local resident taxpayers,” the board president stated. 

Maggie Riley, the president of the PTU, has been picketing with her colleagues outside of Proviso West High School in Hillside, where she teaches. Riley said on Friday that, in addition to the bonuses, the union and district are also at odds over class sizes. The union wants smaller class sizes. 

“We wanted to avoid a strike, but [the district] didn’t want to meet,” Riley said on March 4. “We stand ready to meet any day this weekend, because we want to be back in the classrooms.” 

Neil Rutstein, a teacher at Proviso Math and Science Academy in Forest Park, took a break on Friday from holding his picket sign that read “Working without a contract!”, before pointing to the high school’s parking lot. 

“The superintendent is in the building right now,” Rutstein said. “You can see his BMW parked right there in the premium parking spot. We’re paying for that. He’s got a $6,000 car allowance. The kids of Proviso are paying for his 7-series BMW.” 

Rutstein and other teachers have regularly pointed out that while administrative salaries within District 209 are among the highest in the region, teacher salaries in the district are among the lowest. 

They’ve also pointed to the disparity in contract lengths between the teacher’s contracts and the superintendent’s contract. Last year, the D209 school board increased Henderson’s original 3-year, $250,000 contract to a 5-year, $262,500 contract, in addition to an unspecified pension contribution paid by the district, according to previous reporting. 

Proviso teachers have been working without a contract since last June. The average teacher salary in D209 is around $76,000 — nearly 30% lower than the roughly $87,000 average of high school districts in the Chicago area, according to an analysis of state data provided by teachers. The average teaching experience in the district is roughly 13 years and about three quarters of teachers in D209 have a master’s degree.

The PTU postponed its strike date of Feb. 18 after reviewing an update offer from the district. Contract talks, however, collapsed again. 

Rutstein and other union members and veteran teachers said the negotiation process and the workplace under Henderson are at the lowest point they’ve ever been. They referenced the superintendent’s many misrepresentations, including unsubstantiated claims that union members were behind a student-led walkout held in support of teachers last month and that the district offered $60,000 starting salaries. 

“This is very demoralizing,” Rutstein said. “This has become a toxic workplace. It’s really hard to block that stuff out of your mind and still do your job effectively. It’s really stressful and not just for us. Last [month], the kids couldn’t deal with it either and walked out. I don’t know what they’re waiting for. You can’t have a bigger disaster than a school on strike.”