Seventeen administrators at Oak Park and River Forest High School are getting pay raises for next school year, some as high as 12.63 percent. And critics — inside and outside of the school — are saying the raises send the wrong message to the public in a down economy, while the superintendent maintains that they're needed to keep OPRF competitive.
The high school's board approved the pay boosts on April 28. The increases range from 1.34 percent to 12.63 percent. That would put the top-paid administrator in the group at $183,996, when factoring in matches the school makes to retirement plans.
In a phone interview last week, Superintendent Steven Isoye said the pay changes were necessary to help bring OPRF closer to the middle ground of administrator salaries, as determined by Northwest Personnel Association. He said the high school is striving to stay competitive in attracting and keeping top talent.
"We wanted to position ourselves appropriately in the marketplace," he said. "We weren't necessarily looking to be on the high end, but we also weren't necessarily looking to be on the low end."
The high school is eliminating the position of assistant superintendent for operations, with Jack Lanenga retiring, Isoye said. With that, OPRF will be spending $37,000 less next year on its 17 administrators, or about $2.4 million.
School board member Sharon Patchak-Layman voted against the pay raises last week. She disagrees with how OPRF assessed the marketplace and worries that there's no ending point and salaries will keep skyrocketing indefinitely.
"It's just unsustainable. We just can't keep heading in that direction," she said.
Village Trustee Ray Johnson said he was "fired up" after reading about the pay raises. Village hall has gone through a series of layoffs since the recession started, and non-union employees have had their pay frozen for the past couple of years.
"In this current economic climate, I don't know if anybody is getting 9- and 10-percent raises, year over year," he said. "It's not happening anywhere. It's not happening in the private sector. It's not happening in the public sector. I don't get it. I frankly don't get it, and I think the citizens should be asking questions about how this came to pass."
Jacques Conway, the only other District 200 board member who voted against the raises, disagrees that they're needed to stay competitive. He thinks the bumps are deserved, but they set the wrong tone as OPRF prepares to negotiate a new teacher contract in the near future.
"You're telling me that the people in our building only work there because of the money? That's what you're telling me, right?" he said. "That, if the money isn't right, then everything else that we have to offer just isn't good enough? I don't believe that."
Board President Dee Millard said members asked Isoye to review salaries when he was hired a year ago. The changes help bring the high school toward its goals of improving achievement — by putting academic division heads on the job for more months, and taking away any unrelated responsibilities (such as a $3,976 stipend to one administrator for coaching girls cross country).
OPRF looked at other ways to limit the burden on taxpayers, such as putting part of the compensation increases into administrators' pension costs, rather than all of it going toward the base salary. The school also got rid of the ability to cash out unused vacation days, and some administrators considered above the market got small raises of less than 2 percent. They're moving toward a system where raises are based on performance, she said.
Millard disagreed with Conway's argument that the raises were unnecessary.
"I'd like my kids to have better teachers and better administrators than those that are leftovers because nobody else wants them and we're at the low-end of the pay scale," she said. "If we intend to make the changes that we hired Isoye for, we've got to give him talent to make those changes."
The board held off on discussing pay raises for the high school's two top administrators — Isoye and Chief Financial Officer Cheryl Witham, who earn base pay of $205,000 and $188,375, respectively — as they plan to take those up as part of separate contract talks.