USC teachers face uncertainty; may strike

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 13, 2002

WELLS &045; As the school year rapidly approaches, staff members at United South Central have more on their minds than the upcoming curriculum. After working without a contract since June 2001 most are at a breaking point and are considering striking in hopes of resolving the matter.

Though the certified staff (teachers) and non-certified staff (bus drivers, cooks, and other support staff) are aligned in independent unions, both are without a contract covering the 2001-2002 school year and the upcoming 2002-2003 school year.

Facing a strike, Superintendent Frank Lorenz said the district does not intend to let one happen. But, if it does, contingency plans will go into effect. Substitute teachers would be hired and first priority would be to finish educating senior students and continuing the education of primary levels.

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&uot;The teachers aren’t thinking of what will happen to the students if they strike,&uot; said Lorenz.

The teachers’ next negotiating meeting on Aug. 20 will be the fourth session of negotiation between the group and the school board. Salary isn’t the issue under debate anymore, teachers say. Insurance, severance pay and contract language items are where the dissent lies.

Facing rising insurance costs, the USC school board, teachers say, would either reduce benefits for teachers or expect them to cover some of the costs. Without a significant salary increase, teachers are finding this option unacceptable.

Retiree insurance benefits and severance pay caps have been lowered under the school board’s latest proposal, a move teachers also object to. The education association says retirees stand to loose thousands in benefits. In the latest offer from the school district, severance pay includes $25,000 in cash benefits and $35,000 in medical benefits.

&uot;We deserve to be treated fairly and get good wages,&uot; said USC Education Association negotiating team member Jim Prust.

A vote by association members to authorize leadership to call a strike could come as early as next week.

In their first offer, the USC negotiation team offered no increase across the board on all the issues.

&uot;We took the first offer as a slap in the face,&uot; said Education Association President Karen Robins. &uot;Right now their proposals hurt those who have been in the district the longest the most.&uot;

The district says it can’t afford to meet the teachers’ requests.

&uot;At first glance it looks like we have money. But the district cannot and will not spend our fund balances back down to zero after we have worked so hard to increase them,&uot; said Lorenz.

Right now the education association is working out all the &uot;what ifs&uot; that would come with a strike. At a rally Monday night in Wells, pay and loan issues, make-up days and the cancellation of sports were some concerns teachers expressed.

The overriding message of the night, though, was the neccesity for all the teachers to continue to work. But in a move of solidarity and to help convey the seriousness of the issue, the teachers said they won’t be doing much of the outside work that is not part of their contract, like officiating at sporting events and working in concession stands.

&uot;This issue adds a lot of stress to an already stressful job. And its not just for the teachers, its for the bus drivers and the cooks. It’s really district wide,&uot; said Education Association Negotiating Team President Jim Sand.