For the first time since late August, no teacher or Geneva Education Association member spoke publicly at a Geneva School District 304 board meeting.
Six people stepped to the podium during the brief comments session of Monday night's special meeting at the Coultrap facility, where Geneva board members established a new policy on picketing, then adjourned to executive session.
On Oct. 26, the Geneva Education Association filed its intent to strike. A teachers strike could take place as soon as Friday, Nov. 9.
The two sides are scheduled to resume talks at 4 p.m. Tuesday.
School District 304 sent an e-blast Oct. 31, saying Geneva schools would remain open in the event of a teachers strike, although regular classroom work and most extracurricular activities would be cancelled.
The policy set Monday night will prohibit picketing on school property but acknowledges the First Amendment right to picket on sidewalks and streets so long as the picketing doesn't block access to students, parents or employees. The policy says trespassers could be subject to criminal charges and any violation "may be cause for disciplinary proceedings."
Prior to the public comment part of the agenda, School Board President Mark Grosso made a brief summary statement. He noted that his family has lived in Geneva for 25 years, during which time Geneva experienced rapid growth and passed referendums to build schools and school additions to accommodate that growth.
"When the recession hit, those of us (who) live here found ourselves with a very large school construction bill and debt," he said.
The debt, including principal and interest, is more than $300 million. Grosso said the board has used reserve money to pay down capital expenses and started "abating and purchasing bonds to offset some of that debt increase."
"We’ve asked all of our employee groups to take a pay freeze, and after that pay freeze, we asked them to take an increase that’s not as large as in other years," he said. "We’ve not asked for anyone to be laid off. We’ve not reduced any positions. All we ask is that we limit the increase that (teachers) have traditionally received."
The six speakers Monday night each were allowed about two minutes at the podium.
Steve Young, husband of GEA President Carol Young, offered perspective in support of the union's requests for salary increases and benefits, noting Geneva's outstanding test scores, low cost-per-pupil rates and lower starting teacher salaries compared to other high-achieving school districts. Sandra Ellis, a member of the Geneva TaxFACTS citizens group, said the impact of a strike would fall primarily on parents and students and criticized a union request to have non-union teachers pick up a "fair share" of union dues.
Each of the other four speakers praised teachers but also expressed concerns about rising tax bills and asked union leaders and teachers to call off a strike.
John McCormick, a resident of the Eagle Brook subdivision, took the most extreme position.
"What we have to do is go out and hire replacement teachers," McCormick said. "Love them for (defending their cause), but let’s get them replaced."
Al Brown said he had two daughters who had "very good experiences" with Geneva schools. But he said a strike would help no one.
"What message are we sending to the kids?" he asked. "That’s my big point."
Kent Bickford said his property taxes have doubled during the years he's lived here. He said the education fund budget has grown by 52 percent since 2004, during which time enrollment has grown by just 7 percent.
"It’s not about the children, it is about the teachers’ compensation," he said. "To the teachers of this community, we say, we’ve given you a very fair deal. We’re not in a position to pay out the lavish benefits and expectations you’re used to."
Win Church said he's a retired Geneva resident, married to a teacher, "whose sons and grandchildren also flourished under this system." He said he's been a union member and even walked a picket line. But he spoke Monday night on behalf of senior citizens, and said it was wrong to ask for benefits and pay increases superior to what most people are seeing in the private sector "at a time when many retirees are having a tough time."
Grosso reiterated previous statements that the parties were close to resolution.
"We probably agreed on about 85 to 90 percent of the issues we were negotiating," he said. "When we’ve agreed on that many, I’m not sure why the GEA is still threatening to strike. We’ll sit at the table as long as it takes."
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Editor's note: I added a Patch video of the Monday night special meeting a little before noon Tuesday, Nov. 6. The other video is a reader submission by Rich Hayhurst that was not solicited or paid for by Geneva Patch.