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Teachers picket in Highland on first day of strike

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HIGHLAND • On day one of the first-ever teacher strike in Highland, junior Kyle Craig woke up early and drove his truck to school anyway.

While some of his classmates slept in, his teachers clutched signs and umbrellas while walking the picket line. Kyle decided to show them his support.

“Teachers ought to have higher pay, ’cause they get everybody where they need to be,” said Kyle, whose mother is a teacher but doesn’t work for Highland. “I don’t really want to miss school — it screws everything up. But I get it.”

With signs damp and wilting from rain, about two dozen teachers marched Thursday in front of Highland High School and the district’s other five schools. School and all extracurricular activities and practices were called off Thursday after teachers and district leaders failed to reach an agreement on salaries and benefits. No one could say when classes would resume for the 3,000 children in the Metro East district.

Down the road from the picket line at Highland High, a church opened its doors to offer child care, a relief for working parents. Other pupils stayed home with older siblings or relatives.

Josh Volz was thankful that he was off work Thursday to watch his 5-year-old son, a kindergartner at Alhambra Primary. Father and son were reading and working on activity books, and also on suggestions a teacher sent home.

If the strike continues, Volz’s mother will help watch his son. But he found himself questioning the strike.

“I want to be sympathetic to the teachers. I understand — I’m union — that you want to get paid what you’re worth,” he said. But it seems that teachers aren’t budging, he said. “How can you expect more money if that money isn’t there?”

Drivers honked car horns in support of the picket line. Signs read, “Show you care, be fair,” and “We want a fair settlement.”

ShiAnne Shively, president of the teachers union, said teachers want an agreement from the district that includes credit for years of experience to maintain the quality of teachers in the classroom. She said Thursday afternoon she had called to request a meeting with district leaders. As of late Thursday, no meeting had been set.

“We’ve got to get back to the classroom,” she said. “We want this over as soon as possible.”

The union voted overwhelmingly Tuesday night in favor of a strike, after nearly six months of negotiations. Superintendent Mike Sutton said the district cannot keep spending more than it brings in, and that the reserve funds teachers say could be used will eventually dry up.

Sutton told parents this week in an email that the teachers’ last proposal to the district was a 4 percent increase in salary, which would cost the district about $450,000. In response, the School Board offered a one-year agreement to avoid a strike. It included a $500 stipend and no change in health insurance. It also kept a retirement incentive that bumps up pay in each of a teacher’s last three years in the district. The $500 stipend amounts to about $90,000 in new money from the district to all teachers, Sutton said.

“It’s going to come down to both sides having the desire to make significant progress,” he said.


At Highland Hope United Methodist, staffers stayed neutral when a few children asked about the strike, said Shawna Thole, who runs the church’s child care programs and camps.

“These are grown-up conversations, and we just have to be patient,” Thole said.

Church leaders sent an email message this week that declared Highland Hope a “grace zone,” where “teachers and administrators are all welcome and free to worship in sacred space.”

On Thursday, a church staff member asked a woman who arrived for a meeting wearing a button in support of teachers to remove it.

Meanwhile, football players planned to see a movie together — “When the Game Stands Tall,” about a high school football team on a winning streak. At the same time, they worried about their 2-0 season. Friday night’s game against Mattoon will likely be a forfeit.

“We were hoping that the administration and the School Board and the teachers would work out a deal before anything got too serious,” said senior Joe Range. “Now (we’re feeling) frustration.”

Students who were supposed to take the ACT Saturday at Highland High were moved to another testing site. If a student cannot make it to that site, they may reschedule at no cost, an ACT spokesman said.

School Board member Duane Clarke suggested on Thursday that the teachers chose their strike date as a strategy. The list of weekend activities that could be canceled includes the band’s participation in the Belleville East Marching Band Invitational and sports tournaments.

“Please ask your teachers when you see them picketing today why they couldn’t have waited until Monday to begin their strike,” Clarke wrote. “The above information appears to show that they used your children’s events to try and force the School Board into quickly giving them their 4 percent raise.”

Clarke says that raise would more than double the district’s projected deficit.

Teachers had originally asked for an average 6 percent increase. Although the salary schedule has not been increased since 2010, teachers have been able to move up steps on the pay schedule, which results in increases, Clarke said. The average step increases are about 2 percent.

The union has asserted that the district’s fund balance of $4.6 million could cover wage and salary increases.

The district pays starting teachers $43,718 in salaries and benefits. (A salary for a starting teacher without benefits is $35,318.) A teacher at the top of the scale makes $106,308 in salaries and benefits.

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Jessica Bock is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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