With the union in the Streator Elementary School district threatening a strike, here are four thoughts on the situation:
— Strike is not a certainty. Last week, the teacher and staff union filed an "intention to strike" with the state Educational Labor Relations Board. The district should take this seriously, but residents should understand that this notice could be a bargaining tactic.
Most certainly, the union has caught the district's attention. No one wants a strike. It creates unwanted upheaval and tensions. If teachers and staff members hit the picket lines, this will result in hard feelings that won't go away anytime soon. Just ask folks at Ottawa High School, where teachers struck in 2009. The memories linger.
— Solutions are helpful. In the Streator Elementary union's filing with the labor board, the union's representative, Stacie Walton, talked about budget cuts over the years, noting the district closed two schools and cut the hours of teachers' aides. She contended the district never provided evidence if it realized the promised savings from these actions.
Maybe that's the case, but the union's statement made no mention of the enormous challenges the district faced in recent years. Streator Elementary is a poor district to start with. Of 34 area districts, according to a Times analysis, the Streator Elementary had the lowest property wealth per student. And to make matters worse, the state cut general state aid for districts for a half dozen years, which hurt poorer districts in particular. With the state breathing down its neck, the board had to enter a deficit reduction plan, and that meant cuts. No way around it.
It would have been more helpful if the union gave concrete suggestions on how it would have wiped away the deficit. Yes, there are popular ideas such as closing the central office and cutting administration, but that wouldn't have eliminated all the red ink. Decrying budget reductions without providing alternative solutions does not move the ball forward.
— Blame game. The union is blaming former Superintendent Matt Wilkinson, not the school board for budget cuts. In the union's statement to the labor board, it repeatedly mentioned Wilkinson cut spending and closed schools. Actually, it was the school board that made those decisions, based on Wilkinson's recommendations.
The district has a new superintendent, Lisa Parker, who started last month after Wilkinson got a job in the suburbs (following the district's decision that it didn't want to keep him). In its statement, the union credited Parker's "diligence" in finding new money, allowing the district to have a projected budget surplus the next two years. Under the state's new funding formula, poor districts were already expected to receive substantial new money. That would have happened regardless of whether Parker or Wilkinson was superintendent. The only question is how much more money the district will receive.
— Tell the whole story. On its website, the district focused its news section on developments with the union. When school districts reach impasses with unions, both sides are required to submit their "final offers" to the labor board. On its website, though, the district only includes its side. Why? The district serves the taxpayers, who are entitled to have the whole story. Yes, both final offers are on the labor board's website, but the district should make this information easily accessible.
- David Giuliani is a reporter for The Times. His weekly column "As It Is" expands upon regular news coverage by adding his insight and ideas. He can be reached at 815-431-4041 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @tt_dgiuliani.