We are going to take it as good news that contract talks between the District 97 Oak Park elementary schools and its teachers union are going into overtime.  The district has said discussions will stretch into the summer, not because there is an impasse but because there remains a good bit to talk over as both sides work to craft what we hope and expect will be a groundbreaking agreement.

Meanwhile at District 200, there is also no settlement on the about-to-expire OPRF teacher contract. And while that district has not offered any updates on the talks, we are hopeful that meaningful progress is also being made on a contract that will offer fresh ideas in how teachers are evaluated, compensated, and engaged in problem-solving.

With long contracts coming to a close in both districts, generous pay freezes accepted by teachers ending in D97, with both districts now on the far side of financial and strategic planning, with superintendents now into the meat of their tenures and stable school boards in place, this is the exact moment when the most critical work pact in each district must reflect the realities and the opportunities at hand.

From our view, there are two essential realities: Our local property taxpayers — both residential and commercial — are past maxed out. And with the vast majority of our local property taxes going straight to D97 and D200, the new contracts must simply reflect that the cost of teacher and other salaries must be contained. There is no more money. Secondly, while we have excellent public schools at the elementary, middle and high school level, they are not yet meeting the needs of the wide range of students coming in our doors. Too many students are failing, and too many African-American students are failing. So this contract must reflect that, in part — how teachers are compensated and measured must change. 

We are looking for wholesales changes to the archaic mechanism of “steps” and “lanes,” which rewards teachers solely for seniority and the completion of, to us, dubious continuing education classes. The evidence is conclusive that these costly salary boosts do not correlate to school success. 

We are looking for a creative and substantive plan for teacher evaluations and merit pay. Beyond the enormous limitations of making judgments based on rigid standardized testing, there are ways to assess if teachers, principals and administrators are succeeding at stated goals. 

Let’s build something remarkable here in Oak Park and River Forest.

We love teachers. We admire teachers. We want them to make a good living. But we want them to engage fully — their experience and their energy — to make our schools better. 

The coming contracts at the elementary schools and the high school are the next essential building block of innovation and growth.

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