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January 26, 2017

Despite protest, Rockford Public School Board votes to impose extreme terms on employees

Following in Bruce Rauner’s footsteps, the Rockford Public Schools Board of Education voted to impose its ‘last, best and final’ offer on employees at a board meeting packed with union members pressing to continue negotiations.

The cancerous austerity-driven economic policy that has infected public employers at every level of government has Rockford’s board of education in its icy grip, as it attempts to push its non-academic employees deeper into poverty with unaffordable increases in health-insurance premiums.

Board members voted 6-0 to impose their last offer to bus drivers and food service workers, and 5-0 with one abstention on the contract for paraprofessionals. (Board Member Mike Connor abstained.)

AFSCME members have been fighting back, and packed the Jan. 24 school board meeting after a candlelight vigil. School employees testified that while the proposed contract includes modest wage increases, the steep hikes in health insurance premiums would take more out of many workers’ pockets than the wage increases would put in. Some employees may receive a modest raise despite the increased health care costs, but others will see smaller paychecks. One bus driver, for example, would take an effective pay cut of more than $2,100 a year after six years of service.

AFSCME members prepare for possibility of a strike

Three AFSCME locals bargain with the district—238 bus drivers in Local 1275, 473 paraprofessionals under Local 692’s contract and 165 nutritional services workers represented by Local 3210. The bus drivers voted 183-4 in November to authorize the union’s bargaining committee to call a strike. The other two units are currently considering the same action.

With the average annual pay at $16,181 for bus drivers, $14,280 for paraprofessionals and $11,373 for nutrition services workers, the board is demanding a premium increase on a plan for employees with families to $467.42 a month, from $183.33.

“Losing money doesn’t work for any of us,” said Tracy Goodwin, president of Local 1275. “There’s money there—we’ve been through their finances three times. They just don’t want to spend it on us.”

“RPS does not want to negotiate when it comes to wages and benefits,” said Madeleine Sherod, president of Local 3210. “They were very closed minded about economic issues. Any kind of movement on the economic package was on our end.”

The union members have been engaging the community in their struggle for fair wages as well, she said. “We spoke out at board meetings to inform the public of our plight and our battle. Our kids go to school, too, and we need to clothe, buy them footwear and feed them.”

The paraprofessionals work to meet the educational needs of special education children. The bus drivers get 18,000 students safely to school each day. And the nutritional service workers make sure the students get the fuel they need to get successfully through the school day.

“A child with a full belly is more open minded to their education,” Sherod said. “Our people are critical to the district’s job of molding and shaping our children. We may not be superintendents, but we take our jobs as seriously as they do.”

PHOTOS: MAX GERSH | Used with permission from the Rockford Register Star and