After 13 months of negotiations and an initial offer that was rejected by teachers last fall, the Oak Park Teachers’ Association (OPTA) and District 97’s board and administrators have ratified the terms of a new collective bargaining agreement that both sides described as ‘transformative.’

“It took us about a year to get here but we think where we ended up is a good place for teachers, students and the community,” said board president Robert Spatz, adding that the new contract “creates a sustainable compensation model” that is respectful of teachers and that would “move our system from great to world-class.”

“There are significant differences in this contractual language than what we’ve ever had previously,” said OPTA co-president Sue Tressell. OPTA leaders acknowledged that the new contract was approved by a narrow margin.

“The majority of votes today prove that our membership is willing to accept something that is new and very different,” she said at a joint press conference announcing the agreement held Jan. 27 at the Oak Park public elementary school’s Madison Street headquarters.

Among the most distinct differences in the newly ratified contract, which will run through the 2017-18 school year, is a drastic change in the way the district’s more than 400 teachers are compensated.

A new compressed salary schedule “featuring four bands and five recognitions that emphasize teacher effectiveness” will replace the traditional system of 25 steps and eight lanes that was a hallmark of the last contract and most contracts in public education.

“These recognitions include earning one or two master’s degrees, a doctorate, and endorsements from the Illinois State Board of Education that are attained through the successful completion of coursework and the passage of tests and are added to a teacher license,” according to a joint statement issued by the OPTA and the district.

The recognitions also include the attainment of National Board Certification, “widely considered the most respected professional certification in education,” the statement notes.

“Board certification is something that has never been included in board contract talks,” said OTPA co-president Jen Nelson. “[It’s] a great value for students and the district in general.”

Teachers who realize National Board Certification can expect an additional $10,000 permanently added onto their base annual salary. They would be required to renew the certification every 10 years. Nelson and Tressell said that there are about four teachers in the district who currently have the certification.

Spatz said that, due to this new compensation system, district officials couldn’t provide a clear-cut average percent increase in salary that all teachers should expect.

“In order to implement this transition, some people got a little more, some people got a little less,” he said.

“Over the next couple of weeks, as our HR department goes through and finalizes actual amounts for the checks, we’ll be able to get an aggregate average total, but the average does not reflect what any individual got. There will be some who get more than the average and some who get less than the average,” said Spatz.

According to the contract, a teacher’s base salary for 2014-15 “shall be determined by increasing his/her 2013-2014 Base Salary by 2.7 [percent] plus any credit for educational recognition attainment established by September 30, 2014.”

The new contract also calls for the creation of a 403(b) plan, which is essentially the equivalent of a 401(k) for nonprofits. The plan includes a “50 percent district match up to a maximum of two percent for all OPTA members,” the joint statement notes.

Both sides touted this new feature as an added measure to protect against the increasingly unstable financial status of the Illinois Teacher Retirement System (TRS).

“This was a truly proactive approach,” said Nelson of the new retirement option, adding that it recognizes the dire fiscal realities of the state’s pension system and bridges “the concerns that are genuinely out there” about the system.

When asked to explain what prompted the OPTA to ratify such a radically different compensation system, Nelson said the union simply provided more education to its members.

“We hosted many general membership meetings, breakout session meetings, individual building meetings and the purpose of all this was to provide facts and help them better understand the discussion,” she said.

When asked how this new contract positions the district for an anticipated referendum in 2017, Spatz said that this contract “is not designed to prevent the need for a referendum.”

“The size of a referendum is going to be driven far more by changes to state funding than by anything driven in this contract,” he said. “But I hope it will show the district’s commitment to long-term financial sustainability.”

“The OPTA leadership went above and beyond,” said board member Peter Traczyk. “This is a transformative contract,” he said, noting that it’s a “different way to handle compensation” and puts Oak Park in a “real leadership position” and changes the way compensation models function in the state.

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