By Dan Haley
What's wrong with public officials explaining themselves to the public? It's got a certain logic to it. We elect them. They serve us. We pay the bills. All the usual clichés apply.
This came to mind last week when, in the course of a day, we went from a mid-day interview with Jean-Claude Brizard, the CEO of Chicago's public schools, to receiving a late-afternoon phone message from Dee Millard, the president of the school board at Oak Park and River Forest High School.
Brizard answered every question we asked. Achievement gap. Teachers' contract. Charters. Politics. Unions. Accountability. Test scores. Every question got a thoughtful, cogent reply.
By contrast, we've been trying to get any sort of information out of the OPRF school board as it begins, at least we think it is beginning, the critical task of negotiating a new contract with the faculty.
As a warm-up exercise, just to loosen its collectively, historically, perhaps surgically tightened jaw, we've been asking who would be negotiating the contract on behalf of the school. Thought we might actually get an answer to this softball because the topic has been referenced by the board at, of all things, a public meeting.
You know public meetings: We elect them, they serve us, etc.
But no, we got the dismissive brush-off from Millard. "We'll call you when we have something to say. Thanks for calling."
On this basis I expect to get an emailed press release from the school next May when they announce a new five-year contract with 5 percent annual raises and a 1 percent giveback on the 8 percent hike in health care costs. There'll still be step pay increases and there'll be no headway on merit pay or other methods of accountability. We'll be assured this is a "win-win contract" and a further reflection of "Those Things That Are Best." Certainly, when it comes to the teachers' contract, those things that are coziest.
While there have been signs of life at OPRF in recent years — new administrators and department chairs, the openness to facing drug and alcohol issues, responsiveness to the partial closing of campus — this contract negotiation feels like OPRF returning to its cocoon.
The board, and so far, the superintendent won't share a vision of educational reform and innovation that, if it is going to be real, must be accomplished partly through the next contract with teachers. I'm not suggesting that the contract be negotiated in this newspaper. But setting the stage for those talks by explaining how compensation strategies might be used to further educational goals would be a start.
You might remember last spring. The District 97 elementary school board was selling a tax hike referendum. They wanted a chunk of money and they wanted voters to OK it in the midst of full throttle economic turmoil. And they got it passed. In part, it was because the board president and the superintendent were open about the obvious connection between teachers and compensation and work rules. It happened because the teachers association offered up a one-year pay freeze and acknowledged that the next contract would be the start of a new, more candid relationship.
The culture at D97 is historically more open and more educationally progressive than at OPRF. It also helped that D97 was broke and voters could "demand" change in exchange for support. The high school is sitting on $90 million. They will not face voters with a referendum for more than a decade. The leverage is not on the side of voters. The history at the high school is of contract bonanzas with few innovations.
The silence of this board is deafening.