Carrying signs that read "United We Teach," "Fair Contract Now" and "gea4students.org," more than 200 members of the Geneva Education Association picketed in front of the Coultrap facility prior to Tuesday's regular board meeting.
And when the meeting began, the rhetoric intensified, as teachers, taxpayers and School Board members told personal stories, traded barbs and expressed frustration over slow-moving teachers contract negotiations that have been going on since July without a resolution.
In his opening remarks, School Board President Mark Grosso said he is looking forward to the next session of negotiations with the help of a federal mediator, which resume on Oct. 23.
"I'm very optimistic that we are going to resolve our differences," he said. "Each meeting we seem to get a little bit closer, but the process is slow. I believe both sides are negotiatiing in good faith (but) it's going to take some time."
During the public comment portion of the meeting, Heartland Elementary School teacher Maggie Villwock talked about the stress of working without a contract since Aug. 15 "and what seems to be a blatant disregard of our professional efforts."
Teachers are working with pay according to the terms of the previous contract, but several hinted Monday night that they were not receiving lane advancement for completing levels of higher education.
"Do you really believe it is right to walk away from those promises now?" Villwock said. "Respect the teachers and masters programs and honor the promises that you have made to us."
Geneva Middle School North music teacher Jason Flaks said he and his wife, Chrissa, also a music teacher at the middle school, moved to Geneva because of the quality of the schools. Flaks said he was concerned that the quality might not continue if starting salaries for teachers don't improve. Flaks said Geneva starting salaries were a little more than $39,000, while starting salaries were more than $40,000 in Batavia and more than $42,000 in St. Charles.
"We’ve been enjoying filet mignon for chopped steak prices," he said.
Laurie Reattoir said she and her family live in a modest house on the East Side, own "two cars that are as old as my children" and described the school fees they paid this year as "extremely painful." But she asked the board to support Geneva teachers and disregard the Geneva TaxFACTS group's calls for a pay freeze.
"We are a struggling family, but we want to make it perfectly clear that (TaxFACTS co-founder) Bob McQuillan does not speak for me," Reattoir said. "I ask you to consider what a teachers stike will do to the desireability of living in Geneva."
Geneva High School teacher Mary Keyzer said the teacher compensation totals presented on the School District website or the the Illinois State Board of Education website can be deceiving. Her "12 percent raise" cited by TaxFACTS, for example, came from stipends she received from taking on two additional activities.
"We need to compensate (teachers) appropriately for the work that we do both inside and outside of school hours," she said.
Debbie Hanson said she is a volunteer, former PTO president and presently works as a member of the support staff at Geneva High School. "I took a pay freeze for Geneva," she said, adding "how difficult it is to walk through the halls and see those green shirts and how disturbing it is to some of the employees."
One of the more passionate comments came from Heidi Roed, a resident who said she gets up at 3:30 a.m. for a two-hour commute to a job that pays $15,000 less than her previous position—yet teacher salaries and Geneva property tax bills continue to go up.
"Honestly, we can't afford to live here anymore," she said. "So I'm sorry if I don't have sympathy for folks in my community who don't want to feel the pain, too. And if I sound upset, I am. Because I think it's unfair."
McQuillan said the School District's first priority should be to pay down the debt from previous building bond referendums.
"Abating reserve funds by paying down the debt is not refunding money to the taxpayers. It was the taxpayers’ money to start with," McQuillan said. "The teachers union is facing its worst nightmare: a strong board and an informed public. They liked it a lot better when they just walked up to the taxpayer ATM and it spit out money. Well, we are not going to give it anymore. We just can't afford it. Salary increases do not bring about a tradition of excellence. Just ask the bus drivers, support staff and administrators who have already taken a salary freeze."
School Board member Mary Stith said some school districts are "getting rid of step and lane" payments because of budget concerns, but she emphasized that the Geneva School Board is working hard to come to a resolution with the Geneva Education Association.
"Please, teachers, know that I value you," she said. "We all have a story. We all have experiences. We may have a different approach, we may have different rhetoric, but we care. I appreciate the teachers who spoke in a kind manner. Let's stay in this together. Let’s remember we’re a team."