There aren’t many bigger barrels to be over. School districts’ in the middle of a summer’s worth of major construction projects. The timetables are always tight. School opening looms. And then a construction strike.

The options are limited and mainly unpalatable. But decisions must be made. And last week, both at Oak Park and River Forest High School and at River Forest’s elementary schools, school boards picked their poison.

With the regionwide strike by construction workers in its third week, the River Forest school board decided in a special meeting early Friday to void its contract for summer construction and accept new bids from firms working with non-unionized workers. Superintendent Thomas Hagerman hopes this will allow his schools to open on time.

The school board at OPRF met Saturday and took a decidedly different approach, choosing to sign a side deal with the union that allows work on critical projects to resume. The caveat? The school has effectively agreed to pay whatever settlement – wages and benefits – is eventually reached between the unions and contractors, and it has made that pledge for all construction work at the school for the next five years.

We’re not going to second-guess. Both decisions have upsides and concerns. Both decisions were driven by a sincere desire to get the schools opened safely and on time.

In River Forest, the school board declared the strike an “act of God,” to effect their out from the union contract. That’s a bit farfetched and may be contested. At OPRF, the administration says it has only used union workers on construction projects the past four years anyhow.

We’re disheartened in this still-grim economy to see construction unions strike for substantial pay and benefit hikes against what are, very often, taxpayer-funded projects – the Ike repaving, park upgrades, school projects. And we worry over the choice by OPRF, and other school districts, to strengthen the unions’ hand in negotiations by, effectively, caving early and in five-year increments. The more Project Labor Agreements that unions corral, the greater the union leverage at winning unsustainable hikes.

On the other hand, breaking contracts, fairly entered into, as River Forest has done, is also distasteful.

That said, when the third week of August comes, we will be grateful to see both districts ready to open their doors to students.

Starting early

It’s clear to all that the roots of academic failure, the starting point of the achievement gap that plagues our schools, is in the very first years of life. Before a child ever sets foot into our now all-day kindergarten program, some children – most often black or from lower-income households – have already fallen behind. Yet as a village, all we offer these children is a widely varied array of daycare and preschool programs, built, of course, on a widely varied home-learning environment.

The Collaboration for Early Childhood Care & Education, one of Oak Park’s most remarkable public-private educational efforts, now seeks to make a leap beyond its current level of service and to begin intensive parenting education and expanded training of early childhood care providers.

The organization, which we much admire, is now looking for funding from local government bodies, the state and private sources. Tough time for new funding. But investing now in the future of at-risk children is both right and prudent.

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