The single and simple response to the one-year pay freeze adopted last week by the Oak Park Teachers Association is, “Thank you.”
It is a notable moment when a union bargaining unit, in the middle of a perfectly legitimate five-year contract, votes overwhelmingly — 72 percent in favor — to open the contract and freeze its members’ wages.
This doesn’t happen in normal times. And these are not normal times.
The message from teachers was two-fold. They understand the Oak Park elementary and middle school district is facing significant cutbacks in staffing and programs starting this fall. The freeze in both wages and the often overlooked step hikes will save Oak Park taxpayers more than $1 million next year. Set that against promised cuts of $5.7 million in arts programs, the multicultural center and after-school activities and you have a notable contribution to a common cause.
The second message is to voters contemplating the April tax hike referendum for District 97. It’s a message of shared sacrifice and an understanding that Oak Park taxpayers are genuinely in pain from this brutal recession combined with the heavy tax burden of living in this village. Teachers, and 177 of Dist. 97’s 472 certified staff live in town, are moving to the same side of the table as taxpayers.
We welcome them, we value them, and we appreciate the sacrifice they are making.
There are still many legitimate questions about this referendum that the campaign of the next two months will attempt to answer. Some of those questions will be specific to Dist. 97 and its efforts. And there will be broader questions and doubts among some taxpayers as to whether, irrespective of the elementary schools’ plight, any tax hike can be justified in this moment.
In this atmosphere, the generous action of teachers is appreciated. We reject critics who will not be satisfied until public employees have taken the same severe hits many in the private sector have endured these hard three years. Contracts are in place which should be honored.
Our issue, and one we will press hard during this campaign season, is what will local school boards and teacher unions do when current contracts expire in two years. There can be no return to the norm of multiyear contracts with combined annual raises averaging 4-6 percent.
We need a new normal that reflects what we anticipate will be a long and only gradual recovery from both past excesses and the harrowing hole created by this recession. How school officials, anxious for voters’ support of a referendum, can communicate with certainty their plans for the next contract is what is important to us.