By Jayette Bolinski | Illinois Watchdog
SPRINGFIELD – It’s a tale of two strikes, and two completely different school districts.
While most eyes are on the Chicago Teachers Union strike affecting inner-city schools, another teachers strike was in its fifth day Tuesday in the wealthy north suburb of Lake Forest, where student-to-teacher ratios are low and salaries high compared to Chicago.
The most glaring difference between the strikes? Lake Forest students were in their classrooms, and instruction was taking place Monday and Tuesday. Chicago students were anywhere but their classrooms.
The quality of the substitute instruction in Lake Forest is up for debate among local and state education officials, but the school district said about 70 of the temporary teachers were certified educators.
Teachers at the Lake Forest High School, which has more than 1,700 students, hit the picket lines last Wednesday in a contract dispute over pay raises. Teachers are asking for annual raises over three years of roughly 5 to 6 percent. The school board offered raises of about 2 to 3 percent.
The teachers’ union, the Lake Forest Education Association, said the school district can afford the raises because it has a fund balance that will grow by $20 million during the next three years, according to reports. Their pay was frozen under the previous contract, which expired June 30.
Unlike the Chicago strike, which left thousands of inner-city families in a lurch, Lake Forest school officials brought in dozens of certified teachers, volunteers and non-certified teaching assistants to staff the school. They called students back to their classrooms on Monday, even though the strike was ongoing.
That’s strike-breaking, plain and simple, said Charlie McBarron,spokesman for the Illinois Education Association, of which the Lake Forest teachers union is an affiliate. The school board’s claims that education is taking place during the strike there are false, he said.
“Lake Forest High is a top-quality school because of its teachers. The board should stop pretending to educate students and, instead, offer teachers a fair contract,” he said. “The teachers want to be with the students. The board can make that happen. They should stop pretending and start negotiating.”
Attendance on Monday at Lake Forest High was at least 1,400 students, but officials with the school district and the state are trying to determine if that can count as an official attendance day. Attendance and the credentials of the temporary teachers are factors in that decision.
“It’s a very impressive school and very impressive programming,” Lake County Regional Superintendent of Schools Roycealee Wood said in a report Tuesday. “Is it a good idea? Yes. But does it meet the requirements put forward in state code? That is yet to be determined.”
Meanwhile, all schools in the Chicago Public Schools system, which has about 400,000 students, have been closed since Sept. 10, when that strike began.
According to an analysis of the Lake Forest contract by the Illinois Policy Institute, the teachers there currently pay nothing for HMO health insurance. The school board is asking them to pay 10 percent of their premiums.
In addition, per-pupil spending there is about $36,000 per student, the student-to-teacher ratio is about 14 to 1, and only 4 percent of Lake Forest students are considered low income.