St. Louis teachers close to striking

Teachers received support Monday from three school board members.
Tuesday, January 18, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:34 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 2, 2008

ST. LOUIS — On the verge of a strike that would violate state law, St. Louis teachers received support Monday from an unlikely source: three members of the school board.

Dissident board members Bill Haas, Amy Hilgemann and Veronica O’Brien met with union leaders over the weekend and then called a Monday news conference to say the majority of the board and the district were not doing enough to avert a strike in the state’s largest school district.

The walkout will begin Wednesday unless teachers approve the district’s latest contract proposal. A vote is scheduled for this afternoon. A union negotiating team last week voted 10-1 against the proposal.

No new negotiations are planned, but Haas, Hilgemann and O’Brien said they plan to meet again with union leaders in hopes of trying to resolve issues in the way of a settlement. None of the three are members of the district’s negotiating team.

“We are beyond a crisis,” O’Brien said. “We are taking this to the court of public opinion.”

Hilgemann said many parents have told her they will not send their children to school in the event of a strike.

“Our parents are solidly behind our teachers,” Hilgemann said.

School district offices were closed Monday for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, and calls to district officials were not returned. School board president Darnetta Clinkscale told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that negotiations should be left to the experts.

Haas, Hilgemann and O’Brien said the other four board members have made decisions behind closed doors, without their input. Hilgemann said the district’s full-page ad in Monday’s Post-Dispatch, headlined “An Open Letter to St. Louis Teachers” and spelling out the latest contract proposal, was purchased at a cost of about $5,000 without board approval.

The law is vague on enforcement, but school board attorney Jim Hetlage said board policy is not. Striking teachers could be fired, he said, and the district could seek a court order forcing the teachers to return to work.

Teachers in the 32,000-student district have been working without a contract since July. The district is offering a salary plan aimed at bringing pay in line with five suburban districts. The raises would cost the financially strapped district about $22 million.

Teachers rejected the offer and in December narrowly authorized a strike. The district has 3,450 teachers, but union membership is not mandatory. About 51 percent of teachers are members of the St. Louis Teachers and School Related Personnel Union Local 420.

Union president Mary Armstrong did not return phone calls seeking comment. But she has said not all teachers would benefit from the pay plan and expressed concern about medical benefits.

With the additional pay, the district wants to increase the length of the school day by about 55 minutes and increase the school year, currently 180 days, to 187 days for 2005-2006 and 190 days for 2006-2007.

Armstrong has said teachers are willing to put in the extra work as long as they are fairly compensated.

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