By Terry Dean
The Oak Park Teachers Association (OPTA) last week agreed to accept a one-year pay freeze totaling more than $1 million at the request of Elementary School District 97's administration.
The request was made by Supt. Albert Roberts in December to help address the district's budget crisis. The teachers group announced at last Tuesday's school board meeting that it will accept the freeze.
The 439-member union voted on the pay freeze, effective for the 2011-12 school year, with 72 percent voting in favor while 28 percent voted against.
"The OPTA members decided to accept a freeze to avoid cuts to teaching positions and programs that would have devastating impact on students, the district and the Oak Park community," said OPTA president Sue Tresselt at last night's meeting. "Personally, I am completely compassionate toward, and understanding of, the fact that the current climate within the OPTA, within the state of Illinois and within education is very tense, uncomfortable and filled with uncertainty."
She added that OPTA members hope the wage freeze will allow the administration and board to scale back the $5.7 million in reductions to such programs as CAST, BRAVO and after-school sports, which the board approved this month as a back-up plan should the April 5 referendum fail. Tresselt estimates that about 25 percent of the proposed reduction amount could be saved by the union's move.
On Jan. 18, the board approved a $48 million rate-hike referendum and on Jan. 11, they approved the $5.7 million in reductions.
Roberts said the union's acceptance of a freeze "highlights their strong commitment to our community and to the long-term success of our students." The current 5-year teacher's contract — now it its third year— would have to be reopened and amended in order for the freeze to go through. The actual language in the contract, however, would not change, but a memorandum concerning the freeze, drafted by the district and signed by Tresselt and the school board president, would be added to the contract.
President Peter Traczyk spoke on behalf of the seven-member board in thanking the OPTA for their decision.
"We absolutely welcome and thank the OPTA in partnering with us as we work toward controlling expenses and asking voters to help us fund education in Dist. 97," he said, acknowledging that a pay freeze was never considered a sure thing.
"This is a big concession for a bargaining unit, and for our teachers it's going to be a double hit. They're not only going to get a freeze in wages, but if our referendum is approved, will see their taxes go up," Traczyk said. "They and their families have been affected by this recession as well. Our teachers are not wildly overpaid. So it's a tough question. Was it a given that we would get to this point? No. Kudos to them for taking this on."