District 186 teachers overwhelmingly reject tentative contract agreement. What's next

·4 min read

District 186 teachers overwhelmingly rejected a tentative contract from District 186 on Tuesday, thwarting plans to finalize a contract before the start of the school year.

The ratification vote by Springfield Education Association members at Springfield High School will send both sides back to the bargaining table, a repeat of 2019 when teachers initially turned back a district offer.

A little over one-third of its nearly 1,200 members attended the meeting with 349 voting "no" and 87 voting "yes," an 80% to 20% split.

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School for most District 186 students begins Aug. 22.

According to an SEA letter, teachers would have received a 5% pay raise the first year with a 4.25% hike for 2023-24 and a 3.25% raise for 2024-25.

"What teachers are fighting for is not just money," said Tena Nestler, a kindergarten instructor at Harvard Park Elementary. "We're fighting for our rights, but bottom line is we're fighting for what's best for kids."

The two sides hammered out an agreement on July 12 after nearly a month of negotiations.

Superintendent Jennifer Gill had earlier noted that it was the first time during her tenure that a tentative contract was brought to the teacher before the start of school.

Asked if anyone saw such a lopsided vote coming, SEA bargaining team member Christine Sanders admitted "we had some concerns."

"One of the phrases that came out from one of our well-spoken and strong special education members was 'we're bargaining for what's missing,'" SEA president Aaron Graves said. "The membership took a look at what had been offered and the complete package was obviously missing some key components."

District 186 Superintendent Jennifer Gill, left, along with school board president Anthony Mares, center, and school board vice president Mike Zimmers, right, listen as MIke Lopez gives his remarks during a special meeting of the Springfield School District 186 Board of Education at the District 186 Headquarters in Springfield, Ill., Monday, November 22, 2021. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]
District 186 Superintendent Jennifer Gill, left, along with school board president Anthony Mares, center, and school board vice president Mike Zimmers, right, listen as MIke Lopez gives his remarks during a special meeting of the Springfield School District 186 Board of Education at the District 186 Headquarters in Springfield, Ill., Monday, November 22, 2021. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

Gill was not immediately available for an interview Wednesday, but in a statement said the board and the district were "disappointed" about Tuesday's result."Unfortunately, it appears that there is significant distance between some union members and union leadership," Gill said. "Consequently, the district and the board will consider next steps and look forward to SEA’s communication on how we can move forward in a timely manner."

Reached Tuesday night, board of education president Anthony Mares admitted he thought both parties were in a good place a few weeks ago.

"We tried to bargain in good faith," Mares said. "We think we came up with the best overall (contract). It was going to give everybody (financial) security for the next three years."

Nestler, who has been with the district since 2004, maintained that even the highest-end raise of 5% would not have covered the cost of living in a single year.

There were other things on Nestler's mind, though.

"We do not have enough staff," she said. "That was a huge part of the issue. We do not have enough substitutes. Teachers and other staff pulled to cover classrooms. They're losing their prep times. They're not being compensated."

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Nestler also mentioned security, sick day calculations and mental well-being as other pertinent issues.

"It's not best for kids to have teachers who are so overwhelmed, so overworked that we're not getting our prep times," she said. "We can't take mental health days because there are no subs. We're possibly being threatened at work because there's no security.

"Kids have been through a lot of trauma the last few years with COVID-19. Because of that we're seeing more behavior from students. That creates more stress on the teachers which means we need more mental health care for ourselves."

Graves, who returned to the union presidency in time to negotiate the contract, said a lot of those issues are unresolved and have, over time, been "nagging at our educators and education support professionals. I think this vote is indicative of the lack of resolution in those areas."

District 186 School board president Anthony Mares, right, along with Superintendent Jennifer Gill, left, convenes a special meeting of the Springfield School District 186 Board of Education at the District 186 Headquarters in Springfield, Ill., Monday, November 22, 2021. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]
District 186 School board president Anthony Mares, right, along with Superintendent Jennifer Gill, left, convenes a special meeting of the Springfield School District 186 Board of Education at the District 186 Headquarters in Springfield, Ill., Monday, November 22, 2021. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

Still, Graves believed the district and the union could find resolution "and the public wants to see that resolution. Nobody wants to see a struggle."

Mares said he would like to see things settled sooner than later.

"We want to get our staff and administration focused back on putting our students first and getting the educational process continued moving forward," he said.

This story will be updated.

Contact Steven Spearie: 217-622-1788, sspearie@sj-r.com, twitter.com/@StevenSpearie.

This article originally appeared on State Journal-Register: Springfield, IL, teachers reject contract agreement week before school