There is a new contract between Oak Park’s elementary schools and its teachers and professional staff. Let’s go straight to the dollars because dollars are important and the tax dollars to support the salaries are much on the minds of local taxpayers these days.

But first the proviso that school district contracts are complex, feature multiple moving parts and variables, and are negotiated to accomplish a range of goals held by both the school board and its professional staff.

That said, the new four-year contract increases compensation by an average of 2.5 percent annually. Over four years, that’s a point or two better on the cost side than the 2014 pact. Pretty good deal for edgy taxpayers. A fair deal for faculty. And a reflection that, while not an austerity plan, District 97 has come a long way from the days in the 1980s and into the current century when all-in raises would run 5-6 percent per year. Compound that.

Four years ago, still stuck in the recession of our lives, D97 pounded through a contract that was fiscally tight and, educationally, decidedly innovative. The first time it went out to faculty for a vote it was roundly rejected. Second time out it won such narrow approval that neither the district nor the Oak Park Teachers Association union would clue us in on the final tally.

This time out, with remarkably good feelings all around, the board’s two top leaders, Holly Spurlock and Jim O’Connor, happily shared that the contract was approved by 83 percent of union members and unanimously by the school board.

A year ago, with contract negotiations on the horizon, I was worried the school board would go wobbly on the educational innovations it had won last time around. But I was wrong. The new contract actually improves, makes more real, some critical shifts in culture. These are not things that necessarily save money but by rethinking how the district allocates its cash to teachers, reinforces what is most important to the district and its goals for equity and inclusion. 

Four years back, the district tossed over the expensive and obsolete “steps and lanes” system, an invisible annual pay increase that rewarded continued breathing and showing up on time. It’s still dead. What replaced it, a darned good raise for faculty and professional staff who completed the challenging National Board Certification program, is gradually taking root in the district.

Also expanding thoughtfully under this contract is a fresh culture of teacher recognition and new career paths, which actively reward leadership by teachers. This is way beyond paying a stipend for coaching soccer. This is a whole new way of thinking about how to multiply the talent of top teachers by creating grade-level, school-wide, and cross-district roles as master teachers, curriculum leaders, new projects guides, researchers, and parent workshops creators.

This is critical. If D97 truly wants to succeed in educating every child, it is going to be by fostering an enthusiastic corps of teachers. 

Quickly, the new contract also adds an hour a week of classroom instruction, cuts out two of six Institute Days (parents rejoice), and by 2020 kills off those infuriating salary spikes for retiring teachers that have been jacking up pension costs. Fair warning there is a time-limited cash tradeoff for this in the contract. It also caps the ridiculous post-retirement health insurance payments that teachers, already retiring early, can use for up to four years or until they reach Medicare. Thank you for infuriating me just a little less.

Meanwhile, across town at OPRF, faculty contract negotiations continue without an imminent pact. Four years back, that cash-rich district signed a deal that was too generous and without educational oomph. Again this year, D200 is in the unenviable position of negotiating a contract with $100 million sitting in the vault. We’ll see how that goes.

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Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...