D97 teachers win raises as high as 6.7 percent in 3-year deal

? Benefits stay at current level. Contract language provides for single start time, district-wide conference schedules.

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By DREW CARTER

Certified teachers in Oak Park's elementary schools have reached a tentative agreement on a 3-year contract with the District 97 Board of Education that would award Oak Park elementary teachers with significant salary increases while maintaining benefits and  provide for a common start time for all K-5 schools.

Salary hikes for the proposed contract would be 5 percent, 4.5 percent and 4 percent over the three
years. Pre-set "step increases" provide additional salary above the raises. A "Memorandum of Understanding" would provide for larger raises in the third year "if significant changes occur in funding because of pending legislation," including HB750 or other school funding reform initiatives.

"Something will happen with school funding," said Supt. John C. Fagan.

"We [Illinois] can't stay 49th in school funding forever," said Jim Gates, president of the Oak Park Teachers Association, the union representing Dist. 97 certified teachers.

The salary increases do not include step increases, which average 1.7 percent. That would mean raises for many teachers would be 6.7 percent, 6.2 percent and 5.7 percent in the next three years.

Step increases are raises teachers receive after they've worked another year at the district, and don't apply to new hires and teachers who've reached the cap for step increases.

Salary for starting teachers would be $35,070 next fall, $36,648 in 2006-07, and $38,114 in 2007-08.

"I believe we reached a contract that the district is confident with," said board President Ade Onayemi. "We believe it puts us in a good light and good position for the next three years, especially in light of transitions."

The district will welcome a new superintendent and assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in the summer, and will bid adieu to nearly 20 retiring teachers at the end of this school year.

The retirements will help balance the costs of the entire faculty, Onayemi said, so that the contract would cost the district less than $200,000 more than its budgeted projections. District officials would not confirm that figure.

The highest proposed raise coming next fall would also help the district recruit faculty, Onayemi said.

In terms of starting salary, Dist. 97 ranks 33 out of 39 schools in the Bright Red Apple Award districts. These are area school districts which District 97 regularly compares itself to when monitoring per-pupil expenditures and average teacher salaries.

Benefits and insurance would be maintained at current levels in the proposed contract.

Teacher union representatives and board members forged the deal in three consecutive full-day bargaining sessions in February, a departure from the usual process of weekly meetings spread over months.

Representatives from both sides agreed that the process went more smoothly this time because of "interest-based bargaining," which allowed both sides to hear the other argue their case. The technique had been used in previous contracts, but the shortened timeframe helped to keep bargainers from drifting into propositional bargaining, and allowed for more minds to be applied to solving problems as they arose.

The current contract expires this summer.

The tentative agreement would provide for a single start time at all eight K-5 schools. The proposal had been brought up in recent years, favored by teachers because it would help ease coordination on Wednesday after-school meetings. The board did not approve the idea, which would have saved an estimated $15,000 in busing costs this year, because of safety concerns, then dropped it after the district learned that the village doubted it could provide enough crossing guards to serve all eight schools.

Fagan said that if the district can get the crossing guards, it will go to the unified time, noting that the district did not go to the staggered times for educational reasons, but to save money.

Committees established by the contract came at the collective interests of faculty and the board, with interests being "almost one-for-one," Gates said.

Issues Gates raised about the SLT-led process at Brooks Middle School were not discussed during negotiations, but would be taken up by the committee.

The contract would allow for a common district-wide parent-teacher conference schedule, which one board member said would ease the disruption of parents' lives caused by the current system at the middle schools.

The contract would also define the district's primary focus for the duration of the contract as No Child Left Behind, with "Diversity/Eliminating the Achievement Gap," "Academic Challenge," and special education being the next most-important issues.

It would also require all foreign-language teachers to become certified. Now four of the nine and one-half teachers are working toward certification.

If a foreign-language teacher is not certified, the classroom teacher must stay in the room during instruction to work on planning, instead of going to the lounge or elsewhere.

Teachers will vote to ratify the contract a week from Friday. The board expects to vote on the contract at its March 23 meeting.
CONTACT: dcarter@wjinc.com

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