DECATUR — This month marks a year of contract negotiations between the Decatur school district and the union representing teaching assistants, but both sides say their focus now is on supporting students and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The district and union last year began a series of failed negotiations, which later led to rallies and a three-day strike in October. While no formal hold has been placed on negotiations, the union and district are prioritizing efforts to help Decatur students and staff amid changes due to coronavirus.
"Our goal right now is to focus on supporting DPS students, staff, families, and our community through this crisis,” said Superintendent Paul Fregeau.
Jon Nadler, a field service director with the Illinois Federation of Teachers and spokesperson for DFTA, said the pandemic is a far bigger concern than completing negotiations. The union represents about 275 Decatur employees who include hearing interpreters, licensed practical nurses, hearing-vision technicians and teaching assistants.
“(We) have not even given any thought on what we would need to do to get another date set,” he said. “The pandemic is (the) first priority.”
The main sticking points in negotiations continue to be over health insurance and wages. Teaching assistants say they cannot afford the proposed increases in the cost of insurance coverage, while the district says it is offering reasonable plans.
Paula Busboom, president of the Decatur Federation of Teaching Assistants, did not return a request for comment for this story. Denise Swarthout, a spokesperson for the district, said board members declined to comment.
“Face-to-face negotiations will resume whenever the mediator directs a meeting,” Swarthout said. “In the meantime, continued discussions are possible by phone at any time, as the mediator and parties warrant.”
Eight meetings since August with a federal mediator were unsuccessful and in October, teaching assistants went on strike for three days. They returned to work after their health insurance was dropped. The benefits were then reinstated.
But it is unclear when the two sides will pick up negotiations as there are no future mediation sessions scheduled while students and staff are under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay at home order, which has been extended through April 30. Swarthout said staff, including teaching assistants, continue to receive paychecks under the order.
Pritzker on March 27 signed an executive order suspending certain rules governing school terms and attendance; it empowered the Illinois State Board of Education to define acceptable outlines of remote learning.
Decatur Public Schools began remote learning days last week following their spring break.
“These are unexpected and unprecedented times, it's certainly not business as usual, but we remain focused on continuing to support our students' education and helping to meet their families' needs,” Fregeau said in an email.
It's also unclear when supporters of the teaching assistants, who had frequently spoken at board meetings in recent months, will be able to do so in person again. Because of orders to avoid gatherings of 10 or more people, members of the public were not allowed to attend the most recent board meeting on March 24. Residents were able to submit comments ahead of time.
Multiple board members also stayed home and dialed in for the meeting.
A group of parents and former teachers during a February board meeting called for the board to resign and said they had a petition of “no confidence” with hundreds of signatures. Kevin Collins-Brown, a co-creator of the document, said the petition as of Thursday had around 900 signatures but their efforts have slowed down due to the pandemic.
The district’s fiscal year ends on June 30 and Swarthout said they could negotiate before then.
“The district remains hopeful that a resolution will be reached before the end of the fiscal year,” Swarthout said.
In the meantime, staff and administrators at Decatur Public Schools have taken several measures to help the community. Staff continue to provide hundreds of to-go meals for students twice a week, giving out three days' worth of meals on Tuesdays and two days' worth on Fridays.
The district last month donated over 100 iPads to HSHS St. Mary’s Hospital so staff could communicate with patients and practice social distancing. These efforts were highlighted by Pritzker during a press conference earlier this week.
He specifically mentioned Decatur Public Schools as being one of the district’s across the state that “have taken it upon themselves to support our healthcare workers” citing the iPad donation.
“Once you’re ready, take a look around,” Pritzker said Tuesday. “If you are looking for a lesson in the fundamental goodness of people and of your community, it is right there in front of you.”
Contact Analisa Trofimuk at (217) 421-7985. Follow her on Twitter: @AnalisaTro
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