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Strike Ends, Struggles Continue for Ill. District

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The end of one of the longest teachers' strikes in the country so far this fall won't quickly dissolve the frustration of parents and community leaders who fear the 24-day walkout put students in the struggling East St. Louis, Ill., district in further jeopardy.

"I think the district is going to be surprised by the number of kids that don't return," said Diane Sonneman, who runs after-school and tutoring programs in the city's public-housing projects. "People really are looking into any avenue to get their kids out of the system."

Union and district leaders reached an agreement Oct. 8 with the help of a $500,000 gift from the East St. Louis city government.

After the offer, the district agreed to a two-year contract including 3 percent annual pay increases and a one-time bonus of about 1.3 percent in the first year. The union also won the elimination of split-level classes, in which teachers handle two grades in the same room.

'As Casino Chips'

But even as the system's 12,000 students were called back to school the following day, it was clear that the monthlong battle also had taken its toll on the community's patience.

"We felt they were using our children as casino chips," said Kathy Westly, whose youngest child graduated from East St. Louis Senior High School last spring.

Ms. Westly earlier this month helped organize a march of parents and students through the city to the school board's offices. In another demonstration, parents brought dozens of students and folding chairs to hold mock classes outside the administration building each day for a week.

"We're not pointing fingers and assigning blame," said the Rev. Jerome Jackson, the president of a local church-based citizens' advocacy group. "There's plenty of blame to go around. The community has not sufficiently held the system accountable."

Parent groups vowed to make both the strike and needed school improvements big issues in next month's local school board election.

Many parents complained that the strike hurt seniors who were applying to college and forced the district to forfeit several football games, jeopardizing athletic scholarships. Others, Mr. Jackson said, worried about the potential effects of teenage idleness in a city long plagued with violent crime.

During the strike, many community centers were overtaxed serving scores of young people during the day, Ms. Sonneman said. Her own programs extended hours and received extra state aid to prolong a summer meals program into the fall.

"This is a community in which two-thirds of the population is on public assistance, so parents are really stretching," Ms. Sonneman said. "They're used to lunch being provided now. That's the kind of thing people don't think about."

Oversight Questioned

For the East St. Louis community, the strike was another setback in a years-long story about a city and a school district struggling with devastating poverty and extreme racial isolation. ("Looking the Other Way," Feb. 15, 1995.)

According to state data, more than 99 percent of the district's students are African-American, and about one-third of the students who start high school fail to graduate within four years.

In 1994, the school system's financial plight prompted state education officials to appoint a three-member financial-oversight panel that now has the final say in district budgetary issues. Although the panel has brought greater financial stability to the district, student performance remains low. Further, some believe the panel has complicated contract talks.

"It's like a three-headed animal," said Everett Stuckey, the president of the 920-member East St. Louis Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. "You don't sit across from the people you're really negotiating with."

Although the union had accepted a wage freeze in recent years, the advent of a budget surplus this year led the teachers to argue that the district could afford the increase, Mr. Stuckey said.

Some of the district's critics are now arguing that the state does not exert enough control. The state's appointment of the oversight panel left in place the locally elected school board, which still sets district policy.

The East St. Louis chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recently announced it wanted further state intervention, an action that state officials said would require new legislation.

"[The financial-oversight panel] has a limited role," said the Rev. Johnny Scott, the group's president.

"They're not in there to run the district. They're in there to make sure the district does what it's supposed to in the budget."

In fact, a case now pending before the state supreme court could decide whether the oversight panel has the authority to disband the local school board for ignoring the panel's directives. The panel sought to do just that in 1995, but the board challenged the action in court.

The strike this year, which began Sept. 5, was the longest the district has seen since 1970, when a walkout wore on into November, Mr. Everett said. Teachers held a three-day strike last year.

To quell the current labor dispute, it took the East St. Louis City Council's $500,000 pledge before both sides could reach an agreement.

Because the school system encompasses three smaller communities in addition to East St. Louis, the city government stipulated that the district use the money for construction projects within the city. The additional funds, however, freed up enough money to allow the school board to commit to the teachers' salary increase.

The system's school buildings are in need of some $15 million in repairs, said Richard Mark, who chairs the district's oversight panel.

Permanent Damage?

Although the agreement ended the current crisis, the strike may have caused lasting damage, said Mr. Mark.

"We'll never know the impact of this strike on those kids that were at risk," he said."You're talking about a system in which 66 percent of the kids fail the state reading test. I think they need all the help they can get."

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