Proviso Teachers Strike For First Time In Two Decades 

Teachers in Proviso Township High School District 209 picket across the street from Proviso East High School in Maywood. The teachers went on strike on Friday. | Michael Romain 

Friday, March 4, 2022 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews 

On Friday, members of the Proviso Teachers Union (PTU) Local 571, which represents 280 teachers and other staffers, including social workers and school counselors, picketed outside of all three high schools in District 209 — the first time a strike has happened in the district in 22 years. 

Representatives with the PTU and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the PTU’s parent organization, said District 209 Superintendent James Henderson, the district’s lead negotiator, turned down their offer to meet. 

“We had offered a session yesterday to meet before today to try to avoid the strike and he refused to meet with us,” said Rachel Esposito, the president of Local 571 West Suburban Teachers Union, which includes 18 councils across Cook County and DuPage. 

Esposito, who was picketing across the street from Proviso East High School in Maywood, is among about seven members of the PTU’s negotiating team. 

Supt. Henderson has declined multiple requests for comment throughout the negotiating process. 

As Esposito talked, PTU members paced the sidewalks holding signs that read “Proviso District 209 teachers need more than apples” and “Supporting teachers = supporting students.” 

Teachers picket outside of Proviso East High School in Maywood on March 4. | Alex Rogals 

In a statement released March 4, D209 school board President Rodney Alexander said the district has increased its salary proposal, meeting the union’s demand for a three-year contract. The district has also offered annual pay raises of 3% in each year of the contract, which is up from the district’s previous offer of 2% in the first year of the contract and 2.5% in the second and third years. 

The union also wants bonuses for all teachers of $1,250 in the first year and $600 in the second year, Alexander said. 

“The District remains firm in our position that salary increases at the level being demanded by the union are neither sustainable, nor in the best fiscal interest of our parents and other local resident taxpayers,” the board president stated. 

Maggie Riley, the president of the PTU, picketed with her colleagues outside of Proviso West High School in Hillside, where she teaches. Riley said in addition to the bonuses, the union and district are also at odds over class sizes. The union wants smaller class sizes. 

“We wanted to avoid a strike, but [the district] didn’t want to meet,” Riley said. “We stand ready to meet any day this weekend, because we want to be back in the classrooms.” 

Neil Rutstein, a teacher at Proviso Math and Science Academy in Forest Park, took a break from holding his picket sign that read “Working without a contract!”, before pointing to the high school’s parking lot. 

“The superintendent is in the building right now,” Rutstein said. “You can see his BMW parked right there in the premium parking spot. We’re paying for that. He’s got a $6,000 car allowance. The kids of Proviso are paying for his 7-series BMW.” 

A teacher yells “Hey hey, ho ho, Henderson has go to go!” into a bullhorn while outside of Proviso Math and Science Academy in Forest Park. | Michael Romain 

Rutstein and other teachers have regularly pointed out that while administrative salaries within District 209 are among the highest in the region, teacher salaries in the district are among the lowest. 

They’ve also pointed to the disparity in contract lengths between the teacher’s contracts and the superintendent’s contract. Last year, the D209 school board increased Henderson’s original 3-year, $250,000 contract to a 5-year, $262,500 contract, in addition to an unspecified pension contribution paid by the district, according to previous reporting. 

“The contract also contributes $32,129 in health insurance premiums annually, a $12,500 annual annuity and a $6,000-per-year vehicle allowance. He is entitled to 14 sick days and 25 vacation days.” 

Proviso teachers have been working without a contract since last June. The average teacher salary in D209 is around $76,000 — nearly 30% lower than the roughly $87,000 average of high school districts in the Chicago area, according to an analysis of state data provided by teachers. The average teaching experience in the district is roughly 13 years and about three quarters of teachers in D209 have a master’s degree.

The PTU postponed its strike date of Feb. 18 after reviewing an update offer from the district. Contract talks, however, collapsed again. Rutstein said he hopes Henderson and the district negotiators meet over the weekend. The are no classes on Monday. 

“There’s a four-day weekend essentially for them to bargain, but he’s not doing it,” Rutstein said. “We’ve been asking and he won’t meet with us.” 

Proviso Teachers Union members picket outside of Proviso West High School in Hillside on March 4. | Michael Romain 

Rutstein and other union members and veteran teachers said the negotiation process and the workplace under Henderson are at the lowest point they’ve ever been. They referenced the superintendent’s many misrepresentations, including unsubstantiated claims that union members were behind a student-led walkout held in support of teachers last month and that the district offered $60,000 starting salaries. 

“This is very demoralizing,” Rutstein said. “This has become a toxic workplace. It’s really hard to block that stuff out of your mind and still do your job effectively. It’s really stressful and not just for us. Last [month], the kids couldn’t deal with it either and walked out. I don’t know what they’re waiting for. You can’t have a bigger disaster than a school on strike.” 

On Thursday, the PTU issued a statement urging students to refrain from joining them on the picket lines without parental permission. As teachers picketed outside of PMSA, two female students who declined to give their names walked to join them. The students, both juniors, said they got their parents’ permission to join the strike in support of the teachers. 

Neil Rutstein pickets outside of PMSA in Forest Park on March 4. | Michael Romain 

The two students said the superintendent’s claim that the Feb. 16 walkout was orchestrated by teachers and parents is false. They also said that teachers have not talked with them about the contract negotiations. 

“They haven’t had a contract all year, but they haven’t pulled the students into it,” one student said. “They don’t want us being part of it or worrying about it, but we still see them fighting. We see the board meetings and the teachers getting ignored. It’s really messed up. It makes us feel bad. It just sucks overall, because these teachers do stick by us. They really connect with us.” 

Both PMSA students said they rarely see district administrators, including Supt. Henderson, throughout the school day despite the fact that their offices are in the same building. 

“They’re really hands off,” one student said. “They’re in their offices. The first time I saw the superintendent was the day of the walkout and he came in to send the email blaming the teachers. That was the first time I’ve seen him and I’ve been here three years.” 

Teachers hold up picket signs while walking outside of Proviso East High School in Maywood on March 4. | Michael Romain 

The students also said that their teachers provided them with curriculum material before the strike, so that they can keep pace with their studies for as long as classes are canceled. District 209 enrolls roughly 4,200 students, according to state data. 

The union and district have been negotiating through a federal mediator since last summer. The next federally mediated sessions are scheduled for March 7 and March 9. 

Alexander said the district will start serving breakfast and lunch for all students on March 8. More information about pick-up locations and hours will be posted on the district’s website, he said.  

The teachers said that they’re hopeful the two sides can come to an agreement on Monday, even though they’re aware of the realities of strikes. Rutstein said that teacher strikes last for around a week on average. The last time D209 teachers went on strike, in 2000, the work stoppage lasted for 10 days.

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