It has been a busy week in our District 97 elementary schools. A new three-year teachers pact was reached. And the most serious personnel issue seems about to be resolved with Flora Green's likely departure as Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School principal.
Both actions have a single forward-looking goal in mind. And that is to smooth the way for the summer arrival of the district's first new superintendent since the Reagan years. With Dr. Constance Collins' hiring, the school board wants to clear obstacles, and they've done yeoman's work.
The teachers' contract was settled under a new gambit that called for three intense days of negotiations rather than the traditionally more languorous pace of swapping proposals and then disappearing for days to consider same. Given the generous settlement teachers have received, I'm just amazed the two sides found things to talk about for three days. This contract could have been settled in an hour. When you're sailing 6 percent-plus first-year pay raises into this stagnant economy, it would have been a challenge for staffers to keep their stern countenances in place. No wonder the head of the Oak Park Teachers Association (union) termed the board and the faculty as "allies."
Who, it can be fairly asked, were they allied against?
There are, I'm assured, mitigating circumstances that make this contract less rich than it appears at first blush. The basic raise declines from 5 percent in year one, to 4.5 in year two and 4 percent in the final year. However, you can't forget the completely anachronistic step increases which add 1.75 percent to most teachers' earnings increases. And, says the district, with some 20 teacher retirements expected in the next two years, highly compensated teachers will be replaced by substantially less expensive, younger teachers. Let's hope the district makes that real.
I hate that these columns, which I've been writing to no apparent effect for two decades now, are perceived as anti-teacher. I think teachers are astounding, hard-working, devoted. My children's teachers in Dist. 97 have been great. I remain concerned, though, that the upper limit of what Oak Park taxpayers can afford to pay is being breached and that this contract, no matter how it is spun, moves us closer, faster to a tax referendum.
That said, there is no doubt that having a three-year deal in the can in advance of a new superintendent is worth something extra. The district paid extra for it, in my view.
The other nagging issue the board is about to clear away is the ongoing concern over tensions at Brooks Middle School. While it is unclear exactly how the Flora Green removal will play out, the board and outgoing administration have done the right thing here. You can argue, and people will, whether the decision was made too fast, or too slow, or if there has been too much process. But the right decision was made and even if one thinks it was overdue, it came soon enough to take it off the agenda of the new superintendent.
Dist. 97 has some great principals. Over the years it has also, inevitably, had some who failed. When and how to intervene is the hard question. Perhaps the only job harder than being an Oak Park teacher is being an Oak Park principal. The school board did well to resolve the situation at Brooks.