Tensions surrounding a four-week teachers strike in an Illinois school district escalated this week, after a school board member told community members to “sit down and shut up.”
A packed crowd at the Waukegan High School auditorium for a school board meeting Tuesday night grew agitated after board members announced they would allow only 45 minutes for public comment, according to video. In response to jeers, school board member Victoria Torres leapt off the stage and into the crowd, where she scolded teachers and parents.
"Alright, let's go! I'm a parent too! Yeah, sit down and shut up. Yeah, shut up!" Torres told the crowd.
The meeting ended soon after that, putting further strain on a situation that has kept about 17,000 students in one of Illinois’ largest communities out of school for weeks.
Torres apologized for her behavior in a statement released by the district on Wednesday.
“The tensions of the past few weeks, as well as the personal attacks on my character, my family and my actions, have been nearly unbearable. In the chaos of the Board meeting, where we couldn’t even hear the person next to us, I felt attacked and lost my temper,” said Torres in the statement.
The president of the school board, Anita Hanna, said in that statement: “While we have all felt the pressure of tense negotiations over the past few weeks, we have a responsibility to act as leaders we want our children to admire.”
Neither Torres nor Hanna could not be reached for additional comment.
The mayor called on Torres to resign.
“Her conduct was unacceptable, unnecessary, unprofessional; and I think the only thing she should do now is resign her position,” Waukegan Mayor Wayne Motley told a local CBS outlet. “I will contact the board members. I think that she set negotiations back two weeks.”
Gov. Pat Quinn (D) on Wednesday directed the chairman of the state board of education, Gery Chico, to help facilitate the negotiations and end the strike. Talks resumed Wednesday morning.
"Students in Waukegan need to get back to school and we need both sides to work together to get it done now," Quinn said in a statement, according to The Daily Herald.
Kenzo Shibata, media director for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, told The Huffington Post that the teachers union and school board were close to a a deal earlier this week. But since the school board meeting, he said, the disagreements have widened.
“Things kind of blew up today,” said Shibata. He noted that school board members have not been present at any negotiating sessions.
Shibata said that Waukegan has unusually high teacher turnover, and that teachers are underpaid compared to other similar districts.
"I have been saying this from the beginning, this is not about financial solvency -– this is about certain members of the Board punishing teachers for taking a stand,” Waukegan Teachers' Council President Kathy Schwarz said in a statement.
"It's beyond time that issues get resolved, and the Board's negotiation team hopes that they can build off positive talks with the Union and reach an accord soon," a school district representative said in a statement to The Huffington Post.
Waukegan, located near Lake Michigan about halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee, has a majority of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. According to U.S. News and World Report, only about 20 percent of Waukegan High School students are proficient in math and reading.
UPDATE: Oct. 31 -- Waukegan teachers approved a new contract Thursday, ending the strike. Students will be back in school on Monday.