Over decades this page has been critical of so-called “step increases” built into the salary structures of public school teachers. These are “I’m still breathing” pay hikes paid out annually to teachers in most districts simply on the basis of longevity.
Initially we opposed step increases because we found them a deceitful way to bury the actual total pay increases won by teachers in union contract negotiations. We admit our view was influenced years back when we got snookered by an announcement out of Oak Park and River Forest High School that a new contract included a reasonable raise of some 3.5%. We touted that in a news story and congratulated the school in an editorial for its fiscal prudence. It was then pointed out to us by more experienced school watchers that the school hadn’t mentioned the additional 3.5% step increase. That led to a whopping 7% pay hike over multiple years. This was all part of an era at District 200 that ran up salaries, general spending and tax rates to an unsustainable level.
We’ve also editorialized against step increases because we believe compensation should be tied in some way to performance, innovation, progress against goals. Extra pay hikes for just showing up for another school year is not going to move the needle in solving the intractable problems our public schools face.
So we have felt good as District 97 elementary schools did away with steps entirely while finding other, more focused ways to increase teacher compensation. And then, in its last contract, OPRF followed suit and eliminated steps, too.
Now we are reporting on a new four-year contract at OPRF that reinstates step increases. This is a mistake — an unambitious solution to using compensation to motivate progress.
That said, the school board gets credit for holding a fair line on overall salary hikes with this new contract. Add together the modest base pay increases negotiated with the return of step hikes and the annual cost increase averages 3.5% per year. In this inflationary moment that is a good agreement.
Tom Cofsky, president of the school board and a strong critic of step increases, said bringing back steps was a central goal of the Faculty Senate in these negotiations. His overarching goal was to contain total cost increases to an affordable level. The faculty and the district found a middle ground.
And that is what negotiations are about.