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The first day of school for Mahomet Seymour students did not happen today because the Mahomet Seymour Education Association (MSEA) has been out on strike since 7 am.
The union has had previous struggles with the school board over employment issues. The summer of 2009 was spent pressuring the district to bargain with MSEA about staff performing medical procedures like the insertion of catheters. The district board had refused to negotiate the matter and expected non-medical staff to perform medical procedures.
This same spirit of poor negotiation from the district school board permeated the current contract negotiations. The school board had offered a two year contract with 2.1% raises for teachers (step only), 2.5% raises for aides (step only) and 2.5% raises for other support staff. MSEA had modified their original demands to a new offer of a one year contract with 3.05% raises (1% plus step), 4.5% for aides (2% plus step) and 4.5% for other support staff.
After meeting with federal mediators on Tuesday and Wednesday night, the school board essentially guaranteed a work stoppage after their bargaining team unilaterally left the table without responding to MSEA's offer. The board contends that their $1.5 million education fund and $3 million in working cash fund are for 'rainy days' for which the largest economic meltdown since the Great Depression does not apply. It was also recently announced that the district can expect nearly $700,000 from the Federal Education Jobs bill which is meant to pay teachers and support professionals. Any of these revenue streams could allow the district to settle a fair and equitible contract with the educators.
Reception to the strike has been very positive. Within the union, the vote to authorize the strike was 211-25. Most of the union members participated in the day's picket and were very enthusiastic. Many of the passersby were very supportive, waving or honking horns at the picket. One parent and child even joined the demonstration during the afternoon to support MSEA.
Meanwhile, the district has portrayed the union very negatively. School board president Terry Greene "For us to be able to get a deal done and get the kids back where they need to be, which is in a classroom, we would hope the MSEA would put their own personal interest aside and put the kids first, put the school district first, put the taxpayers first."
Some parents have voiced support for MSEA. One encapsulated the history the struggles between the union and the board: "I thought it would be a good time to support (MSEA). Regardless of the numbers, (the teachers) tried to compromise and the board didn't move at all. It appeared to me that the board was unwilling to negotiate."
While the board can blame the union for the strike, the fact remains that the school board decided not to compromise on compensation numbers. The fact also remains that the board's negotiators were the ones who unilaterally left the table Wednesday night rather than respond to MSEA's offer.
A special negotiation session has been scheduled for 6:30 Thursday evening. MSEA spokesperson Eric Potter said "If the board is serious about getting schools open immediately, we will be able to get an agreement at tonight's bargaining session."
Coverage of this story will continue as it develops.