CHICAGO - After a year of contract negotiations and 10 days of a strike, tensions boiled over between Proviso teachers and the west suburban school administration this week, with the union demanding the ouster of the superintendent after a confrontation at a board meeting.
Video of the Tuesday encounter, shared on social media and then by the school district, shows Superintendent James L. Henderson and school board member Claudia Medina in a heated argument over issues raised by the strike.
The teachers union claims Henderson used profanities and advanced "aggressively" toward Medina before walking away. Medina later filed a complaint with police that she had been verbally abused and threatened.
The union called for Henderson to be placed on leave while his "disgusting display" was investigated, but Henderson defended himself in a letter to parents and said he had been pushed to the edge.
"What you saw was a human reaction to someone who has, for the last year and a half, purposely distracted and hindered me from doing the work that I was hired to do — educate our scholars," Henderson said in the letter Thursday.
Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson speaks with teachers and members of the Proviso Teachers Union on Friday, March 18, 2022. (Facebook screenshot/Proviso Teachers Union)
"With the challenges brought on by the pandemic, the last two years have been difficult for everyone, especially our students. However, this behavior should not be endured by any human being," Henderson wrote.
On Friday, teachers who have been on the picket line for their 10th day demanded the school administration continue negotiations. The union is demanding better pay and smaller class sizes at Proviso East in Maywood, Proviso West in Hillside and Proviso Math and Science Academy in Forest Park.
Ashley Avila, a seven-year English teacher at Proviso East, said the school district and the union have agreed on nearly 20 issues during negotiations over the last year but remain apart on pay and class size.
(Photo courtesy Obafemi Adebajo)
"Those are the two points left — two points that directly affect students and teachers," Avila said.
Avila pushed back on statements from the school board that teachers were bargaining in bad faith. "We have moved this process along to the best of our ability, so to continue to see statements being made that teachers aren’t making an effort — that’s a lie."
Avila said class size has grown out of control recently, with 40 students in some classes, and gym classes with 60 or 70 children per teacher.
Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson spoke alongside the teachers and supported their demands.
"Pushing for manageable class size in a national problem," Johnson said. "Why would you exacerbate that problem? What the parents and students are asking for is not unreasonable. You can’t expect the teachers to move student achievement if there’s 30 kids in the classroom.
"It is ridiculous that we’re on the 10th day of a strike that should’ve been settled a year ago," Johnson said.
Students in the district are to begin their spring break next week.