Milo Gittings, a 15-year-old sophomore at Proviso Math and Science Academy in Forest Park, speaks to media outlets during a D209 school board meeting on Tuesday. Proviso Teachers Union President Maggie Riley, standing to Gittings' right, and Proviso West teacher Carissa Gillespie, center, look on. Photo courtesy of Paul Goyette

During a press conference held Friday, March 18 outside of Proviso East High School in Maywood, Proviso Teachers Union (PTU) leaders said that District 209 Supt. James Henderson is now threatening to refuse to pay them for makeup days.   

Union leaders said that on March 17 their membership rejected the district’s latest offer of a three-year contract, with 3% annual salary increases over the life of the contract. The union wants a two-year contract with 7.25% pay raises — 4.25% in the first year and 3% in the second year. 

The union said Henderson told teachers that if they didn’t take the offer, they would not be paid for any makeup days that are required for the district to meet the state mandated 180 instruction days. That means that the teachers would be giving up at least 10 days of pay, since that’s how long they’ve been on strike. 

If the superintendent’s threat holds, that means the longer the strike stretches on, the more pay teachers will forego. Union leaders, however, said that the sacrifice is worth it, considering what they’re fighting for. 

Maggie Riley, the PTU president and a teacher at Proviso West, said that the board has also refused to apply salary raises retroactively. 

“The retroactive pay should be there,” she said. “This should be retro back to July 1, 2021, since the contract expired June 30 last year.”

Union leaders said the district has also refused to set limits to classroom sizes, which teachers say are spiraling out of control. Current class sizes in District 209 range from 25 to 40 students and some gym classes hold upwards of 60 students, they said.

Nicholas Christen, an attorney and researcher with the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT), the PTU’s parent union, said he performed an analysis of the district’s finances and produced a 14-page document showing his findings. Christen said the district has $50 million in fund balance this year and has banked budget surpluses “in the millions of dollars every year” over the last decade. 

“The district’s unwillingness to settle with teachers has nothing to do with their ability to pay,” Christen said.

Proviso Supt. James Henderson (right) speaks at the March 15 board meeting. Paul Goyette

Carissa Gillespie, a Proviso West teacher and PTU negotiator, said another sticking point has been the issue of athletic department hires. Currently, preference is given to any teacher who applies for those jobs. 

“The Board of Education, with the superintendent, wants that out of the contract, because they want to be able to hire whomever they want at whatever salary they want,” Gillespie said.

“Currently, if you go into our personnel documents, they are willing — you heard earlier a first-year teacher is making about $49,000 — they’re willing to pay an athletic trainer $48,000. How does that make sense? […] “This is not restructuring, this is educational rape!” 

The union’s three main demands now center on competitive salary increases that include retroactive pay, smaller class sizes and the district’s commitment to pay teachers for makeup school days. 

The March 18 press conference came two days after the PTU called for Henderson’s resignation related to a video that surfaced showing a tense, nearly physical exchange of emotions between the superintendent and D209 board member Claudia Medina after a school board meeting on March 15.

The union also demanded that the district release its own video of the exchange and launch an investigation into the matter. The district released security camera footage of the encounter on March 17, but the board did not announce its intention to investigate. 

Board President Rodney Alexander did, however, issue a statement affirming the board’s support for Henderson. The statement was attributed to all board members except for Medina and Amanda Grant — both of whom have been the most vocal board critics of the superintendent. 

As the tension between the district and the PTU accelerates, many elected officials have thrown their considerable leverage behind the union. 

“It is ridiculous that we are now on the 10th day of a strike that should’ve been settled a year ago,” said Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson (1st) at Friday’s press conference. 

Johnson said about two dozen other elected officials sent a letter to Henderson on March 17, urging the superintendent and the board “to prioritize our students’ education and bring this strike to an end by finally starting to negotiate in good faith to reach a compromise with PTU Local 571.” 

Along with Johnson, other elected officials who signed the letter include Cook County Commissioner Frank Aguilar (16th), Broadview Mayor Katrina Thompson, Forest Park Mayor Rory Hoskins, Bellwood Mayor Andre Harvey and a range of trustees in Bellwood, Broadview and Forest Park. 

Johnson said Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough is also supportive of the letter. Acting Westchester Village President Nick Steker issued his own letter of support for the teachers earlier this month. Many of those elected officials have also visited striking teachers on the picket lines. 

In a statement released March 18, Alexander said the district shares “the concerns of many of our families that students will have lost valuable instructional time due to two weeks of the teachers strike.

“Informal negotiations continue and we are working to schedule additional formal negotiation sessions with the goal of reaching agreement, so that students and teachers can return to the classroom after Spring Break as planned on Monday, March 28.” 

The next formal federal mediation session was scheduled for March 22, after this publication’s print deadline.