MURPHYSBORO — Tensions over contract negotiations between Murphysboro School District No. 186 and its teachers' union came to a head Monday as the teachers voted to turn down the district’s last best offer and to strike on Thursday.

The two sides have been at odds for weeks in their most recent contract negotiations. The Murphysboro Education Association, a union that represents 152 teachers, counselors, nurses and social workers in Murphysboro School District No. 186, on Sept. 19 filed an intent to strike after months of bargaining on a new three-year contract with the district stalled on a salary increase.

Lisa Shields, a spokesperson for the MEA, said the vote was overwhelming. But Monday's vote against the district's latest offer doesn't necessarily mean the teachers will strike. Thursday has been set as a walk date, but Shields said Monday that the MEA is still holding out for more negotiating dates with the district.

“We remain willing to negotiate and hopeful a strike can be avoided,” Shields said in a written statement Monday. She wrote that the union is “asking the board to put students first” and come back to the bargaining table.

In a phone conversation with The Southern on Monday, Shields reiterated what the union has been saying for weeks in regards to its salary requests.

“We are trying to attract and retain quality teachers for this district,” she said.

Superintendent Chris Grode said the district is more than willing to meet to discuss options. However, he said it likely would be a discussion about the same amount of money contained in the current offer. He, too, doubled down on previous statements.

“We’re not hiding money,” Grode said Monday. “We are being financially cautious, but we are not a wealthy district.”

When asked about the Thursday strike date, Grode was matter-of-fact.

“There’s never a good time for a strike,” he said, noting that should the strike happen, there are several sporting events that would be canceled.

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In a news release sent after the vote was made to reject the district’s offer, Grode reminded families of what a strike will mean.

“School will be closed during the teachers' union strike. As previously announced, all classes, athletic contests and practices, as well as any school-sponsored activities and events will be canceled until the teachers strike is over,” the release said.

The conflict became heated in early September as the MEA wrote that the district was sitting on a surplus of cash and needed to make good on promises of salary increases that had been deferred for years as a result of low state funding.

The district shot back that the amounts proposed were significant and the best it could do. In the news release Monday, Grode said the board had offered teachers a yearly salary increase of $2,000 to the base pay.

However, Shields said this does nothing to reward seniority. A teacher who has worked 20 years would receive the same raise as a teacher who is in their first year — she said this would not help the union’s goal of attracting or retaining quality teachers.

In an effort to avoid a disruption to school, both parties met Thursday to try to find a deal. MEA lead negotiator Catlin Langellier said the union team came ready to bargain, but said the board didn’t seem to have the same idea.

“We were there to bargain. They were there to give us an ultimatum, which is their prerogative,” she said. She said her team came to that conclusion when the board would not accept the union’s counter-offer.

Grode said the district has reached its threshold for salaries.

“We’re deficit spending, I don’t know where any more money can come from,” Grode said Friday when asked if there were any wiggle or room for negotiating on the district’s end.

“The seven members were comfortable going to this point and not any further because of the deficit spending,” he said, noting that the district wants to pay teachers as much as it possibly can.

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