Peoria teachers join national outcry over pay, resources

By Elise Zwicky for Chronicle Media

Peoria Public Schools teachers and their supporters held homemade signs during a recent informational rally outside the Peoria Public Schools administration building. The Peoria Federation of Teachers Local 780 is currently in contract negotiations with the district. (Photo courtesy of the Peoria Federal of Teachers Local 780)

Peoria Public Schools teachers and their supporters joined the nationwide outcry over teacher pay and resources recently by staging an informational rally outside the district’s administration building.

Jeff Adkins-Dutro, president of Peoria Federation of Teachers Local 780, called it a positive rally that was meant in part to “bring some notice to Peoria, Ill., especially with the rallies going on in all the other states where they’re marching to the capital.”

Adkins-Dutro estimated that 400 to 500 people participated in the rally, including teachers, community members, parents and members of the Peoria People’s Project, a group committed to fighting for community schools and services.

“This was the first time in a long time we’ve done a rally like this with this many people,” he added.

The PFT is currently in contract negotiations with the district, a process that started in February. The current contract expires June 30.

Specific concerns being addressed by the union in the contract campaign are more time for teachers to prepare quality lessons, better learning conditions for all students and adequate compensation for all teachers, Adkins-Dutro said.

“I don’t think most teachers get into teaching for the money. Overall, they get into teaching because it is their calling,” he said. “We have had 40 (teacher) openings in Peoria because every year we lose as many teachers as we gain, largely due to working conditions. It’s important to note that teachers’ working conditions are our students’ learning conditions. We are ready to unite with our brothers and sisters in Illinois and across the nation to demand funding for our schools and respect for our profession.”

Adkins-Dutro said it’s been encouraging to see teachers in other states march and fight for their rights. “It’s made me realize that if you don’t battle for public education funding it will become the last thing on the priority list, and that’s kind of what we’ve seen in the other states,” he said.

In the latest surge of what’s becoming a nationwide teacher protest movement, thousands of teachers in Arizona and Colorado walked out of their classrooms in late April to demand more funding for public schools. Teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky have also led rallies and walkouts.

In his 24th year of teaching, Adkins-Dutro said he’s not seen such a widespread public outcry among teachers before, but added, “I’m not surprised by the reasons why it’s happening in regards to low benefits, low wages and outright disrespect from a lot of politicians.”

While the PFT hasn’t ruled out marching to the state capital as teachers in other states have done, he noted that a big difference between Illinois and right-to-work states such as Arizona is that “the unions aren’t nearly as strong there as they are here and collective bargaining isn’t nearly as strong. They really have no options but to go directly to the capital and fight for a raise, whereas here we can go directly to the administration building as opposed to Springfield. But I suspect if the state funding doesn’t shake out like it’s supposed to or something else dramatic happens, we’ll have teachers across Illinois doing the march.”

During a Peoria Public Schools Board meeting after the rally, several people spoke on behalf of the teachers and asked board members to find a way to show teachers they matter through pay and other benefits, which they said would increase the retention rate and make the district more attractive to new teachers.

“I think most teachers just want to know they’re being respected for the job they do every day,” said retired teacher Charlie Thomas.

Associate Superintendent Alexander Ikejiaku, who was filling in for Superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat at the meeting, said, “We’re at the (bargaining) table, and we will definitely stay there in good faith.”

Adkins-Dutro said the PFT also supports a resolution passed by the board asking the Peoria City Council to abandon the River Trail Apartment development proposal and end the Northside Riverfront tax-increment financing (TIF) district. The TIF district is set to expire this year, and dissolving it could mean $300,000 in property tax revenues for the school district.

School Board member Dan Walther stressed that the action does not reflect on the board’s willingness to work collaboratively with the council. “We have to do what’s in the best interest of our district and our students,” he said.





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