Sometimes a long, long negotiation over a teacher contract is the best-case scenario. Faculty, administration and the school board at Oak Park and River Forest High School just signed off on a four-year contract that took a year to hammer out. Took a mutually-agreed-upon federal mediator to wrap up.
And if you are a taxpayer, enthusiastic about genuine equity, and a believer, like me, that teacher contracts are where the aspirations of a school system ought to be memorialized, then this is the best and most ambitious contract our high school has negotiated in memory.
Substantive change is underway at OPRF. This is a contract packed with change. Finally.
OPRF is a school district with a habit, over decades, of giving away the store to teachers without ever having a particular sense of what it needed in return. So it got nothing in return. Annual pay raises of over 5 percent were the norm. An affirmative recitation of “Those Things That Are Best” completed the negotiations even as, steadily, the challenges of this complex and diverse district became clearer from the outside looking in.
This time around. a powerful confluence of events informed the negotiations for all participants. There is a collective cry of pain from local taxpayers, many buckling under the pressure of property taxes driven largely by the local school districts. This is real and OPRF rightly feels the heat most acutely as it swindled taxpayers out of tens of millions it collected wrongly under an audacious reading of the results of a generous referendum victory taxpayers had approved.
That $100 million cash reserve remains an albatross for this district even as it slowly tries to right size the “cash in vault” factor.
So the new contract finally, finally blows to bits the traditional “steps and lanes” charade common in most districts near and far. The steps, up to 30 of them, gave all teachers guaranteed annual, and largely invisible, pay hikes just for showing up in the fall. This raise was in addition to the negotiated annual raise included in the contract.
District 97 led the way in ditching this giveaway two contracts back. Past time that OPRF caught up.
Also substantively changed are the lanes, another hoary education industry tradition, which required constant pay hikes as teachers rolled up dubious additional post-graduate credits. This time the contract cuts those lanes from eight to four and, very notably, allows compensation for teachers who take coursework aligned with the district’s strategic focus on equity. So, become immersed in restorative justice coursework and the district rewards you for something that helps drive toward its mission. Logical and exciting.
This is not a pauper’s contract for faculty. Nor should it be. There is a signing bonus for every teacher of $3,000 and there are flat $3,600 raises for each of four years. However, other adjustments to the contract at the top end, planned retirements, and less expensive rehires, will bring the average pay increase per year to 1.83 percent.
Tom Cofsky, a veteran board member and a lead negotiator, called the contract “a whole new framework that puts us in the realm of balancing the budget.” That would be as opposed to calling for a new referendum in the near future.
The contract also brings back a daily 15-minute advisory period for all students. This was, happily, an idea raised by the faculty. For each of their four years, every student will be assigned to a single teacher for advisory. It will be a mix of students from all years, and will, if executed well, offer a safe space to connect with other students and a trusted adult to talk about all the things that make high school life, OPRF specific, a challenge and an opportunity. This would be the “America to Me” contribution to the new contract.
OPRF has a long way to go. But it couldn’t go anywhere without a teacher contract that defines the path.