Frustrations mount as Sunnybrook District 171 enters seventh month of contract negotiations

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Teachers union concerned; negotiations resume Jan. 6.

By Jennifer Yos

LANSING, Ill. (January 5, 2021) – During School District 171’s virtual Board meeting on Monday, December 21, second grade Nathan Hale teacher and Sunnybrook Education Association (SEA) member Amy Pelke expressed concerns and frustrations related to contract negotiations for teachers, which have been ongoing since June 2020. Sunnybrook Education Association is a teachers union for teachers in District 171, and in a two-minute statement, Pelke spoke on behalf of the union’s bargaining team.

Heritage Middle School
Teachers at Heritage Middle school (pictured above) will be affected by the contract negotiations, as will teachers at Nathan Hale Elementary School. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

She expressed the bargaining team’s belief that District 171’s negotiation team was not honoring an agreed-upon time commitment for negotiations, contending that meetings, which had been scheduled to last from 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., have never lasted past 9:00 p.m., thus delaying the overall process. She said the board did not provide a counter-proposal to a recent union attempt, saying they wanted to “sleep on it,” and that twelve days had passed without a response.

Pelke also said an additional effort had been made to bargain in a small group setting, with both parties agreeing to bargain with just two members from each team. She stated that both parties had worked cooperatively in good faith on salary schedules that could work for both the district and the union, and although the union included that work in its proposal to the board’s team, the efforts have not translated to any tentative agreements at the negotiation table.

Negotiation meetings between the SEA and the District 171 negotiating team have been occurring once or twice a month since the summer, when they were often held weekly.

A long process made longer

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Pelke explained to The Lansing Journal that during a November 18 bargaining meeting, SEA wanted to discuss the importance of keeping a salary schedule. She said it was mutually decided this would be done in a small group setting, and so on November 30 and December 1, SEA President Justin Bronson and Vice President Kathleen Specht met with District 171 Superintendent Dr Erika Milhouse-Pettis and Business Manager David Shrader for seven to eight hours. According to Pelke, it was clarified to the union’s team that whatever was discussed, decided, and agreed to at this small group session would be supported by both the union’s team and the 171 Board.

Following these two small group meetings, Justin Bronson emailed Dr. Milhouse-Pettis asking for additional information in order to finalize a proposal, but did not receive a full response to his request, according to Pelke, until the day of the next negotiation meeting, giving the SEA too little time to finalize a proposal for that day’s meeting. Bronson said the union would present the Board with the proposals at the subsequent negotiation meeting as more time was needed to put the information into the proposal.

According to Pelke, when the union team met on December 9, they put together everything that was agreed upon by the small group bargaining team and presented the combined proposal to the mediator and emailed it to the District and Board. The mediator then worked with the District’s team for approximately ninety minutes.

“Around 8:45 p.m., the mediator came into our small group saying that the Board wanted to set up dates for future meetings,” said Pelke. “Our statement was that we planned on meeting until 10:30 p.m. and were willing to wait as long as it takes to finalize the contract. This is when we were notified that we would go back to a whole group setting and discuss future dates. Our team asked if we could meet later; they denied. We then asked if they could TA (Tentatively Agree) the articles that were discussed at the small group session on November 30/December 1 and this is when the District’s Lawyer, Dan Boyle, said, ‘The Board wants to sleep on it.’”

District 171 Superintendent and Board response

At the December 21 Disctrict 171 Board meeting, after Pelke had expressed the SEA team’s frustrations, Board Member Kenisha LeSure responded that the SEA proposal was presented late—an hour and a half into the negotiation meeting, which was not enough time to review.

District 171
Board Vice President Kenisha Lesure said the SEA’s proposal was submitted too late into the latest contract negotiation meetings to be properly addressed. (Photo from sd171.org)
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Board Member Desiree Ambrose also mentioned that numbers were not presented until an hour into the meeting. Board President Timothy Terrell encouraged everyone to “stay positive” and that “everybody needs to move forward.”

No response was made during comments in regards to Pelke’s contention that the meetings were ending earlier than the mutually agreed upon 10:30 p.m. or in regards to the mutual agreement to abide by small group decisions.

The Lansing Journal reached out to Superintendent Erika Millhouse-Pettit, Business Manager David Shrader, and the District 171 Board members for comments regarding these concerns. Dr. Millhouse-Pettit responded, “While the School Board of Sunnybrook District 171 respects the opinions of all of its stakeholders, the views expressed by Mrs. Pelke are not the views shared by the District’s negotiating team. Throughout this process, the District has sought, and continues to seek, an agreement that will serve both the short and long term interests of its staff and the community it serves, for the ultimate benefit of its students. This is not an obligation that the District takes lightly. When we reconvene on January 6, 2021—as previously agreed to by the Sunnybrook Education Association—it is the District’s mission to ensure that all stakeholder interests are taken into consideration, so that a contract can be tentatively agreed upon. It is our hope that this can be accomplished at that time.”

The January 6 meeting is a negotiation meeting, not a School Board meeting, and as such is not public.

Sunnybrook School District 171 serves south Lansing and Lynwood, and makes decisions for Nathan Hale Elementary School (19055 Burnham Avenue) and Heritage Middle School (19250 Burnham Avenue). District offices are located at 19250 Burnham Avenue.

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