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Tepid Season of Teachers' Strikes Exhibits Evidence of Heating Up

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Although most of the nation's teachers and students have settled into their fall routines, a handful of districts have shut down because of teachers' strikes.

Nearly 700 public school teachers in East St. Louis, Ill., have been on the picket lines since Sept. 5, and Roman Catholic teachers in the Camden, N.J., area walked out Sept. 9.

Meanwhile, teachers in the largest school system to go on strike so far--the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia--settled their differences late last week. Teachers there had called the strike, their first in 25 years, the day after Labor Day. ("Parochial Teachers Take Lead on Strike Front," Sept. 10, 1997.) Classes were set to resume this week.

In East St. Louis, considered one of the most troubled districts in the nation, teachers reported to work for nearly a week before voting to strike. It was the second consecutive year in which East St. Louis teachers closed schools over a salary dispute.

Talks with the district and a federal mediator late last week had yet to resolve issues of overcrowded classrooms and salary.

Teachers are also asking for a cut in class size and for the elimination of split-level classes, which require teachers to manage two grades in one classroom.

Officials of the 13,000-student district say they are willing to trim K-3 class sizes, but they have balked at a pay increase.

Saundra Rule, a spokeswoman for the East St. Louis Federation of Teachers, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate, said the district has offered a 2 percent raise, while the union is asking for 6 percent. Current salaries range from $25,057 to $46,483.

Catholic Unrest

So far, the greatest discontent seems to have come from educators in Catholic school systems.

Parochial school teachers in the Diocese of Camden are seeking a 6.75 percent raise over each of three years and improved benefits.

Classes in the diocese's eight high schools have continued with half-day sessions for the 5,000 students, who are being taught by administrators, nuns, priests, and a handful of lay teachers who decided not to strike.

Nearly 200 teachers stayed out late last week while talks between members of the South Jersey Catholic School Teachers Organization and the diocese appeared to be at a standstill.

"We're willing to meet with mediators," said William J. Blumenstein, the union's president.

The union had offered, and then withdrew, a 5.5 percent salary proposal in the most recent negotiations. The diocese rejected the offer and has said it will come to the table only to make final its offer of a 3.25 percent hike in the first year and increases of 3.5 percent in the following two years.

Directly across the border in Pennsylvania, officials of the Philadelphia Archdiocese had vowed to keep schools open for their 23,000 high school students. Classes, however, were suspended last week in the 22 schools.

Church officials said they had reached an agreement with the 950-member Association of Catholic School Teachers Local 1776. At issue were salary, benefits, and participation in school religious services which required mandatory attendance by teachers. The new contract calls for salary increases of $1,700, $1,600, and $1,600 over three years.

"The nine-day work stoppage, although unfortunately necessary, was incredibly effective," Rita C. Schwartz, the president of the union, said in a statement.

Students Protest

There has been no first day of classes for teachers or students 260 miles westward in Indiana, Pa. Teachers there in the 3,800-student district have been on strike since Sept. 2, much to the dismay of students.

More than 200 Indiana High School students rallied in protest during what was supposed to be the first week of school.

The district has halted all school activities, including sports, which forced the school's football team to forfeit two games.

With college-application deadlines fast approaching and guidance offices closed, many students are also upset about their academic well-being.

"This delay has put our lives on hold," said T.J. Kokolis, a rally leader and a senior at the school. "They think it's a two-party situation, but there are really three parties involved."

Strikes against two teachers' unions--both National Education Association affiliatescontinued as well last week. In Ohio, a walkout by staff members of the Ohio Education Association has delayed negotiations between local teachers' unions and districts throughout the state.

And staff workers have been on strike against the Louisiana Association of Educators since Aug. 31.

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