Teachers stunned as OPRF board does its homework

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By DAN HALEY

For a long time I've waited to hear a school board member or administrator say the words, "Early retirements haven't saved the district a nickel."

It happened last week. Cheryl Witham, the chief financial officer at Oak Park and River Forest High School, said it during an unusual meeting between OPRF officials and WEDNESDAY JOURNAL reporters. "Over 12 years (that I've studied) we haven't benefited," she said of the early and generous retirement incentives that school districts have been laying at the feet of veteran teachers for the past 20 years at OPRF and many other school districts.

During that one-hour meeting I also heard a board member say that school boards, with their regularly changing membership, tend not to have enough institutional memory to remember things like why the early retirement bonanza was created in the first place. It started 20 years ago, said board member John Rigas, when enrollment was in sharp decline and OPRF needed to offload salary. The district may have actually saved money at the start because it was not hiring replacement teachers, he said. But later, enrollments started to rise, new teachers were hired, and old teachers were still being strongly encouraged to leave in their mid-50s with big buyouts and inflated pensions.

So the genuine reason to push early retirement was gone, no one really grasped that, it kept getting included in subsequent contracts and, as a result, came to be seen as something of an entitlement for older teachers who started planning their lives around it.

In the teacher contract negotiations just concluded at OPRF a number of structural changes were accomplished by a board that had started to look more seriously at costs. They were ably assisted by the arrival three years ago of Witham, a school finance officer who didn't use to be a gym teacher.

That was another thing I heard last week. The long-accepted rubbish that only teachers could become department heads, principals, finance officers, superintendents has created a lot of self-perpetuating, fuzzy thinking in education for a lot of years. District 200's decision three years ago to hire a former corporate finance person in Witham has led to a level of financial analysis and understanding on how this entity works that has made decision-making logical and tactical.

Along those lines, an administrator acknowledged last week that over the past many years while the school was paying through the nose to push experienced teachers out and telling the public that they'd save money by hiring young teachers, what the school was actually doing was hiring fairly (8 to 10 years) experienced teachers at a hefty price thereby negating any savings.

Listening to all this, I don't suspect any chicanery, just a lack of clarity about what the actual goals were and how money was being spent.

The upshot is that when this contract went to teachers for ratification it passed by only five votes. While I think the pay raises in this contract were still overly generous, clearly by reining in retirement and health insurance costs the school board sent a much overdue message to teachers that the status quo was draining the coffers. The board deserves extra credit on this one.

Carpenter to Milstein to Pope: Never recall having three sitting village trustees running for village president. But in the April election we'll have Diana Carpenter carrying the VMA flag, Bob Milstein representing the new New Leadership Coalition, and David Pope running solo. This should make this winter's board meetings awfully good viewing on Channel 6.     

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