District 97 is off and running on its campaign to increase real estate taxes, and the usual battle lines are being drawn. The district says, "Booyah. Without a tax increase we'll cut favorite programs like CAST and Bravo, but spend more on technology."
On the other side is outrage over real estate taxes, especially given that unemployment remains near 10 percent, and we are still feeling the effects of the Great Recession. This is the "Are you out of your mind?" argument. In the middle are the people who will decide the referendum. They want the schools to do well, but are not sure we are getting the most bang for our tax buck. These folks know that the district has not had a tax increase for operations in a long time, although rising home values provided a steady stream of increasing cash flow during the past few decades. Also, they may not get all warm and fuzzy about the tax increase 10 years ago to build our monolithic middle school buildings.
May I make a modest proposal? If the district wants to get the tax increase passed, it needs to get out of its comfort zone and change the way it does business. The district can reduce the rate of increasing its spending and improve the quality of education by doing two things: eliminate teacher tenure and introduce merit pay.
Here is the old (i.e., current) way of handling teacher contract negotiations. Every couple of years, representatives of the district and the teachers union go into a room. They play cards and then come out after a few hours to tell the world that the parties have agreed to a new contract. That contract includes annual pay increases of 2, 3 or 4 percent, on top of step increases the teachers get automatically for each year of service. The new increases put Oak Park teacher salaries near the top of their "cohort," which means elementary schools in Evanston, Wilmette and La Grange. Over the next three years, Oak Park teacher pay falls to the bottom of that cohort before the process repeats itself. Great teachers get the same raise as lousy teachers. Because of tenure, lousy teachers keep their jobs.
It's time to change this paradigm to both reduce costs and run the schools for the benefit of the students and not the weakest teachers. Impossible? The district will never have more leverage with the teachers union than right now, when taxpayers are outraged and nobody is getting any kind of raise in the private sector. Here is how my teacher-tenure provision would work. Instead of a teacher working for a few years and then being guaranteed a job for life, a new teacher would have a probationary period for a few years and then be offered a three- to four-year employment contract. At the end of the contract, the parties could agree to re-up or go their separate ways. Good teachers would stay. Bad teachers would leave.
As for merit pay, we should reward creative teachers who are working hard, using the best practices and getting results. Doesn't that make sense? Right now, even if I stink as a teacher, I will get my raise as long as I show up to my classes sober. And don't tell me that teaching is such a mystery that teachers are beyond evaluation. Happens all the time in other sectors. Ask non-tenure track contract teachers at universities, where tenure is on its way to extinction because of its high costs.
One final point: I have recently bloviated in this column about the underfunding of teacher pension plans. The District 97 board does not help its cause when it dramatically ups the salaries of favored administrators during the last two years before retirement so that the favored few can help drain the pension fund trust even more quickly. Can you say Jack Fagan, our former superintendent?
Bottom line: District 97 is choosing the wrong argument to convince voters that they need to vote for a tax increase. If we really care about the kids, we will use this referendum as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the way District 97 hires and compensates teachers.
Jack Crowe is a third-generation Oak Parker. He cycles with the Lake and Harlem group and volunteers at Christ the King Jesuit College Prep in Austin.