By Dan Haley
December is here. While the rest of us are intently, hopefully, even happily, turning toward the holidays, something very important is underway at two of our local public school districts.
Both the District 97 elementary schools and District 200 OPRF High School are prepping for critical teacher contract negotiations. We're betting the teacher unions at both districts are also prepping.
Talked Monday to the school board presidents of both districts.
Jackie Moore of OPRF said the road ahead will be clearer next week after the board and administration meet to finalize both logistics of negotiations, such as who is on the negotiating team, and identifying "primary areas of interest" to be addressed in the contract talks. In a fresh move, Moore and another board member were recently invited to a meeting of the Faculty Senate, the teachers' union. That's good.
At the public elementary schools, Holly Spurlock is enthused about a new process the board and the faculty will adopt this time around. Called "interest-based bargaining," the plan is to include a third-party facilitator from the start of the talks. Both the district and the Oak Park Teachers Association, the union, are being jointly trained this month on the new process. The two sides — or perhaps that is too harsh a characterization; Spurlock called them "teacher partners" — are also preparing a batch of one-sentence talking points they want broached in the discussions. Regulars here know my view that hiring a superintendent is far and away the most important job of any school board. And both of these districts have made a hire recently.
So now we're at the second most important thing a school board does — crafting a contract with the teachers. It's critical not just because paying teachers is far and away the largest cost in any school district. And in a town that just passed one district's tax hike referendum while turning away the others, we know, rightly, there is sensitivity to pay raises.
Both these districts have a history of dishing out entirely too generous salary hikes. Those instincts have moderated some over the past couple of contracts as tax tension has risen from simmer to slow boil and as we've endured a major recession together.
In recent elections, voters in Oak Park have effectively chosen school boards fully focused on equity in education. Those boards have hired superintendents as immersed in equity issues as they are, and they've adopted strategic plans that talk non-stop about equity.
Now it's time to align the faculty contract and the philosophy of evaluating and compensating teachers with equity initiatives. The status quo of lock-step raises, additional semi-hidden raises poured into obsolete concepts such as "steps and lanes," which reward teacher endurance more than innovation, does not accomplish that.
Last time out, D97 and its "teacher partners" broke some glass in negotiating a new contract. A sincere effort to craft a way to evaluate teacher performance was created. New levels of promotion opportunities for teachers were created with worthy compensation attached. This was a way to honor and make use of the talent of great teachers while not shifting them out of classrooms into low-rung bureaucratic positions just to make more money. And the increasingly disputed notion of paying teachers more for piling up post-graduate hours was, at least, cracked. I'd give that contract a strong "B."
The high school meanwhile was stuck in place four years ago with a contract that could have been written in 1976. Innovative it was not. Reflective of a need for new thinking and bold approaches it was not. A flat-out "F."
I'm starting the clock. Both these districts claim they are ready and past ready to make change real. The aspirations are genuine. But the rocket fuel will be in these new contracts. Or not.
Answer Book 2017
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