By Dan Haley
Here's the really good news from Oak Park and River Forest High School. Total compensation paid to administrators will be dropping this fall. Of course, it took the retirement of the assistant superintendent for operations to make the math work since all the rest of the administrative team is getting raises.
Now if the school can only figure out how to off load one administrator every year, this charade can continue for at least 17 more years — though how the school can get by without a math department chair I'm not certain.
The raises will range from 1.34 percent to 12.63 percent [See story, page 10]. The school board approved those hikes last week with Sharon Patchak-Layman and Jacques Conway the only holdouts.
Also, keep in mind that the board has yet to take action on raises for Supt. Steven Isoye or CFO Cheryl Witham. Those deals are still being negotiated. If Isoye can figure out how to get Witham voted off the island, he is in line for a big honkin' pay hike.
I had to think awhile before deciding that the "We're saving $37,000 next year on our administrative pay budget of $2.4 million [by firing the operations director]" was the more specious of the two arguments put forward by the school last week in its defense.
The other argument for the raises was the old chestnut that schools have been trotting out for decades to justify their generous pay raises. It goes something like this: "We have to stay competitive with other comparable districts. We don't have to be on the high end of the comparison but we can't be on the low end either."
Two points: The tight circle of comparable school districts is a device designed to perpetually ratchet up pay raises. It is an artificial marketplace that is a perfect reflection of how schools have come to operate outside the bounds of normal economic life.
The invented marketplace divorces the school from the true economic reality its board was just re-elected to reflect. The reality is that life is tough on the ground right now for taxpayers in Oak Park and River Forest. This school board is tone deaf enough that it didn't grasp the pain it took for Oak Park voters to approve the District 97 tax hike referendum. But it was clearly politically savvy enough to bring these raises to the table after the election and not before.
Our high school district has $90 million of our dollars in the bank — a preposterous fund balance. That level of cushion makes possible, maybe inevitable, a 12.63 percent pay hike for an employee in year three of a brutal recession that has left 9 percent of the country jobless and many of the rest of us earning less.
And this positively sets the stage for the next gigantic giveaway when the current teachers contract expires. How do you hang tough on wages and benefits for hundreds of hard-working teachers and other staffers when you open the checkbook for administrators? The school board has shown its hand. They're saps and we're all going to pay.
Patchak-Layman had it right in opposing the raises. "It's just unsustainable. We just can't keep heading in that direction."
This is not about being against the school's administrators or teachers. It is about respecting taxpayers and dealing with current reality. D97 teachers have taken a pay freeze for next year. Non-union village staff haven't had a raise in at least two years. That's hard, but it's real.