The District 200 Board of Education approved the new two-year teacher’s contract on Jan. 31 at a special board meeting, just one day after Oak Park and River Forest High School faculty ratified the agreement.

It calls for, among other things, pay freezes during the two-year duration of the deal, more flexibility in teachers’ daily work schedule, and increased retirement benefits for roughly 150 faculty with a 403(b) plan. School officials also note the two-year length is intentionally short-term as the school embarks on the strategic planning process set to begin this fall. The high school estimates a savings of around $2.7 million from the agreement.

But that wasn’t enough to sway every board member to support it.

Of the seven D200 board members, Sharon Patchak-Layman was the only one voting no. She did so, in part, because it maintains the “status quo” concerning teacher compensation, namely keeping “steps” and “lanes.”

Under the agreement, first-year pay would be frozen with no step and lane increases, but steps and lanes would be available for some faculty in the second year.

“This proposed contract maintains the status quo of steps and lanes without any other options,” Patchak-Layman said, reading from a prepared statement at the meeting.

She also took issue with aspects related to student achievement that, she insists, aren’t addressed in the contract.

“This proposed contract has no requirement for, or mention of, faculty professional development and participation in learning communities. … Parents have approached the board over the last year regarding issues of special education, race and achievement with concerns about professional development around these issues. We have little accountability with the community when such important concerns are not addressed within a contract.”

But several of the other board members disagreed with Patchak-Layman’s assessment, saying she was misrepresenting aspects of the agreement. Her concerns about compensation, they add, would be better addressed during the upcoming strategic planning process.

John Phelan, the board’s chief negotiator during contract talks, said the contract does make advances though not the “drastic” ones Patchak-Layman imagines.

“This is an agreement that in a difficult economic time saves the district $2.7 million,” Phelan said, “and it clears the way for strategic planning with the cooperation of the board, the administration and the faculty that will take place over the coming months and will set a lot of parameters and goals for teaching students.”

While board member Ralph Lee said he would vote in favor of the contract, he did so while expressing some reservations.

“What I am unhappy about is what I perceive is a reluctance on the part of the board to give a clear picture of where we see ourselves going from here,” he said. “I believe what we are approving tonight can be a good step toward where I feel we should be going, or it may not. But since the board has chosen to leave that unclear and not discuss it publicly, I see that as a problem.”

Terry Finnegan, though, said the agreement is a “two-year window, where we can really open up negotiations in a very broad sense and have the entire community involved in conversations … and is going to allow us to really have open dialogue where everyone’s going to feel comfortable to talk about how we best use the resources to more positively affect every child in this school.”

Phelan added that the community conversation is needed and is on the verge of happening. Those members expressing support of the contract also praised OPRF teachers and faculty union representatives for their work during negotiations.

Retirement benefits disputed in ’08

The current five-year contract was signed in May 2007 but was reopened nearly a year later over a dispute concerning retirement benefits for non-tenured teachers. The dispute, over whether new teachers were covered under existing retirement benefits in the contract, was eventually settled. But not before OPRF’s Faculty Senate filed a grievance with the state labor board in fall 2007 against OPRF’s school board. The two sides went into mediation and the senate later dropped its complaint after the board agreed to reopen the contract. The dispute stemmed from a last-minute wording change to the contract before it was approved by the board in May of ’07.

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