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Morton teachers union, district will meet with a federal mediator as contract talks hit a roadblock

For the first time in 24 years, contract talks between the Morton School District and Morton Education Association have gone to federal mediation.
Steve Stein
/
WCBU
For the first time in 24 years, contract talks between the Morton School District and Morton Education Association have gone to federal mediation.

The Morton School District and Morton Education Association have reached an impasse in their negotiations for a new contract.

In an effort to break the logjam, the district and union bargaining teams will meet with a federal mediator, with the first meeting scheduled for Monday. The MEA's current 3-year contract with the district ends Aug. 1.

This is the first time MEA contract negotiations with the district have gone to federal mediation since 2000. The only MEA strike was in 1991.

The district and MEA began negotiations for a new contract in February. After more than a dozen meetings, the MEA asked for the help of a federal mediator in May.

The MEA represents 240 teachers, counselors, speech pathologists, psychologists and social workers who serve more than 3,200 students in the K-12 district.

Money is the sticking point between the union and the district. Tentative agreements have been reached on several other contract issues.

"The district has $35 million in reserves in its budget," said MEA President Shane Weyland. "We're not asking for those reserves to dwindle to nothing. We're not asking the district to raise taxes. We're not asking for the moon. All we want is a fair contract the district can afford so we can retain and recruit the best teachers."

Superintendent Craig Smock said he's surprised contract talks have gone to mediation.

"With inflation as it is, we knew we were looking at something not typical in contract negotiations," he said. "But I thought we'd get it done through the normal process. I don't begrudge what the union leadership is doing. I respect what they're doing for their members.

"We have an outstanding staff. We want a fair contract with them that doesn't hurt our current budget and doesn't cause long-term budget problems that could result in cuts to things like capital projects and services. We don't want to walk that line."

School Board President David Cross said the board understands that each district employee needs a pay increase to keep up with inflation.

"However, these increases must be balanced against our goal of being fiscally responsible to our taxpayers and maintaining a balanced budget," he said.

Weyland said a survey of MEA members done before contract negotiations began revealed that 75% are considering leaving teaching. Of those teachers, 80% cited their salary as the main reason.

Those numbers and these other survey results are the driving forces behind the MEA's salary requests, Weyland said:

  • 35% of teachers have an additional job to make ends meet.
  • 60% of teachers spend more than $250 on supplies for their classroom each school year, with several spending more than $1,000.
  • 80% of teachers say their workload has increased in the last five years.

"We're on the verge of a crisis in Morton," Weyland said. "We know our district has the funds to address this. We can't keep losing good folks to better paying jobs in the next town over. Our students deserve high-quality educators."

Shane Weyland, president of the Morton Education Association, shows off the sign that union members are displaying in their yards.
Submitted photo
Shane Weyland, president of the Morton Education Association, shows off the sign that union members are displaying in their yards.

Weyland said 60% of Morton teachers live in the district and 58% are sending their children to Morton schools.

"Investing in us is an investment in our community," he said. "Our teachers are making less money than several of our neighboring districts, including Dunlap and Washington. If we're not competitive, we're going to continue to lose talented folks who will just drive down the road to neighboring districts."

The MEA reported about 70 teachers, more than 25% of the district's certified staff, left the district in the last three years. That number does not include teachers who retired.

While the MEA didn't provide information on where the teachers went after leaving Morton, "inadequate compensation, overwhelming work conditions, and increased stress levels were the reasons given by many of the teachers who left the district," according to the union.

In a comparison of salaries between the Morton and Dunlap school districts, the MEA reported that a teacher hired in the 2019-20 school year who did not earn more pay for additional degrees would have made $46,835 in Morton and $51,322 in Dunlap (not including a Teacher Retirement System contribution) for the 2023-24 school year.

A teacher with a bachelor's degree and seven years of experience would have earned $48,128 in Morton and $53,187 in Dunlap for the 2023-24 school year.

A teacher with a master's degree and 12 years of experience would have earned $59,789 in Morton and $64,212 in Dunlap for the 2023-24 school year.

A teacher with a master's degree plus 45 additional semester hours and 25 years experience would have earned $77,764 in Morton and $89,661 in Dunlap for the 2023-24 school year.

Cross pushed back against the Morton/Dunlap salary comparison. He noted that Dunlap is in Peoria County, which is not tax-capped like Tazewell County, and schools in Peoria County also benefit from a county facilities sales tax that Tazewell County does not impose.

"Also, Morton teacher salaries are greater than those in the Washington elementary school districts and just about every other similar district in our area," he said.

Cross said teacher workloads in Morton compare favorably to neighboring districts, and Morton isn't experiencing a mass exodus of teachers to "the next town over."

Weyland said when three-quarters of Morton's teachers say they're thinking of quitting the profession, "it should sound a massive alarm bell with parents, Morton community members and the administration.

"The teachers aren't contemplating leaving because they don't like teaching or because they're close to retirement. They want to leave because they're not making enough money.

"We love our students. We love that our schools are the heart of our community, but at some point, you have to put your family and their bottom line first."

The district and MEA bargaining teams will have virtual meetings with the federal mediator, who is in Minneapolis.

Mediation is the first step before a legal strike can take place under the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act. If a contract agreement can't be reached with the help of a mediator, there will be a public posting of the last, best offers by both sides.

After the posting, a strike can called 10 days later.

Weyland and his wife Janine have spent their entire professional careers in the Morton School District.

A sixth-grade teacher at Lettie Brown Elementary School, Shane Weyland is heading into his 34th year in the district. Janine Weyland is a kindergarten teacher at Grundy Elementary school. She's going into her 29th year teaching in the district.

They met in the teacher's lounge at Jefferson Elementary School, where each began their career.

The couple's four children, now adults, each graduated from Morton High School.

Austin is a Pekin police officer. Owen is a recent Illinois Central College graduate who plans to go into law enforcement. Gabe works in management for Cosco in Davenport, Iowa, and Cole is a counselor for the Minneapolis Park District.

Steve Stein is an award-winning news and sports writer and editor. Most recently, he covered Tazewell County communities for the Peoria Journal Star for 18 years.