OPRF board, administration see contract as evidence of sea change

? Important savings steps made this year will stabilize finances, keep district out of financial crisis years later, officials say.

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By DREW CARTER

A teachers contract approved by just more than half the faculty in November shows signs of a new era of fiscal steady seas, officials at Oak Park and River Forest High School said last week.

Retirement costs were cut in half with the new contract, and other savings were found in medical insurance premium costs.

Though salary hikes for the three-year deal were above what the District 200 Board of Education prescribed in its five-year plan, the savings steps during a time of economic prosperity in the district?#34;it passed an operating referendum in 2002?#34;represents a "sea change" for the district, one that began with the hiring three years ago of Chief Financial Officer Cheryl Witham, board members said.

Before, educators handled finances at the high school. But as doctors have been replaced with business professionals in the running of hospitals, so should educators, said John Rigas, board secretary and head of the board's negotiating team.

Witham moved the district to a "zero-based" budget, so that all expenses have to be justified every year, not just increases.

"Cheryl has gone through and just financially scrubbed this place," Rigas said.

Jason Edgecombe, the assistant superintendent for human resources, said the administration hopes teachers will eventually see that the changes in retirement and health benefits needed to be made now, and will appreciate future financial stability.

The board cut payment of the employer's share of the state's early retirement penalty, which has cost the district up to $100,000 per teacher in some cases. The contract encourages teachers to stay with the district until they reach age 60 or have 34 years of teaching experience, rather than retire early.

On average for a retiring teacher, the total early retirement package costs to the district will now be $110,000, down from $248,000 last year.

At the same time, total pension benefits to teachers have increased, officials said, as long as teachers live to their life expectancy.

Salaries did rise in the new contract, especially for teachers in their first seven years of teaching. That was an effort to even out the pay schedule, which had grown to benefit experienced teachers more than new teachers over about a decade of negotiated deals, officials said.

Better salaries lower on the pay scale will help the district attract and retain teachers with less experience. Ideally, the district hires the candidate most qualified for a position. But balancing those desires with fiscal responsibility results in balancing more experienced hires with less experienced ones, Edgecombe said.
Contact: dcarter@wjinc.com

District 200 update

The Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 Board of Education began the process to approve the sale of $1.7 million in working cash bonds last week at its regular meeting Dec. 16.

Chief Financial Officer Cheryl Witham said the district intends to use the proceeds of the bond sale in building projects, such as making ventilation improvements in the pool areas.

The bonds will cost taxpayers $2.3 million by the time they are retired in 2016. Repayment of the bonds would come from property taxes that are in addition to money the district can levy for its operating funds under tax caps.

A petition signed by 10 percent of registered voters (5,696 people) in the district by Jan. 18 would force the bond sale to a referendum. An attempt last year to force a District 97 bond sale to referendum was unsuccessful.

The district will hold a hearing on the bond sale on Jan. 27. A resolution to sell the bonds could be approved a week or later after the hearing.
Board adopts school funding resolution

The board adopted a resolution on school funding drafted by the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, a collaboration of elected officials from Chicago and 271 other municipalities in the six-county metropolitan area.

The resolution calls for the state to make the following "short term goals":

?  To fund mandates "in addition to, and not in place of, State funding for core curriculum costs,"

? To change the way it evaluates fiscal accountability at districts,

? To change the way it measures student achievement and accountability,

? To fund at least 51 percent of the cost of education, reducing the reliance on local property taxes,

? To direct more state dollars to under-funded districts.

By passing the resolution, the board urges the governor and members of the General Assembly to "work toward the implementation of the above stated goals and begin a much needed dialogue on ways to reduce the over reliance on local property taxes to fund education."

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