Oak Park and River Forest High School is seen on Monday, Sept. 27, 2021, on Lake Street in Oak Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

Teachers at Oak Park and River Forest High School have a new four-year contract and, in a notable win for teachers, step pay increases are back after being eliminated in the previous contract. School officials meanwhile are lauding the overall amount of the combined base pay and step increases which average 3.5% in each year of the contract.

The OPRF District 200 Board of Education voted unanimously to approve the contract at its Aug. 25 meeting after teachers had ratified the agreement the week before.

The new contract calls for raises in base pay of two percent in the first year of the contract and base pay raises of 1.3 percent in each of the final three years of the contract. But the reinstatement of step increases, automatic raises for another year of seniority, means that total raises will average out to be 3.5 percent annually according to the district. Teachers at the lower end of the salary schedule will generally receive greater raises in percentage terms than teachers at the higher ends of the salary scale.

“The step increases, obviously, was something that the faculty wanted and is part of the final deal so we are happy to work together with the Board of Education to come to this agreement,” said Sheila Hardin, a veteran math teacher at OPRF and the chairperson of the Faculty Senate, which is what the teachers union at OPRF is called. “We want to be good stewards for the district but we also want to retain strong teachers and be able to hire and retain strong teachers in the future.”

Some school districts, including Oak Park Elementary School District 97, have eliminated step increases. But reinstating step increases was a major goal of the OPRF teachers union in contract negotiations after steps were eliminated four years ago. High inflation and a competitive job market led to the reinstatement of step increases.

Tom Cofsky | File

Tom Cofsky, president of the OPRF District 200 Board of Education, said the overall package of raises averaging 3.5 percent a year is in line with the district’s expected revenue increases.

“Their interest was to have the step structure and our interest was to live within our means and we met and came up with a winning solution between the two,” Cofsky said.

“We just wanted to make sure what we negotiated was within what we could afford from a levy standpoint,” Cofsky said.

Critics of step increase argue that they are unseen raises that allow teachers to get double raises each year, an increase in base salary and a seniority-based increase. Defenders of step increases and salary schedules say teachers should get raises based on experience. Hardin pointed out that unless teachers become administrators, they have no position to be promoted to and thus deserves raises based on experience. She also said that teachers improve with experience.

“Experience matters,” Hardin said. “It makes teachers better teachers and more knowledgeable and able to do more than they probably did as a year one teacher.”

Hardin also disagreed with the contention that step increases are hidden raises.

“Nothing is hidden, we’re public employees,” Hardin said. “Our contracts, our pay is out there for the public to see.”

The new starting salary this year for a OPRF teacher with a bachelor’s degree and no previous teaching experience is $62,061. That is slightly more than the $61,934 that a first-year teacher earns at Evanston Township High School where a new four contract is also going into effect this year. But Evanston teachers are getting larger raises than their counterparts at OPRF getting a 2.3 percent raise this year and a 3.5 percent increase in base pay next year. Evanston also has step increases.

The new starting salary at OPRF is also greater than the comparable salary for a first year teacher with only a bachelor’s degree at New Trier High School ($61,389), Lyons Township High School ($59,888.), Hinsdale High School District 86 ($57,632) and Riverside Brookfield High School ($56,000). All but Riverside Brookfield have a step system and traditional salary schedule.

Cofsky said having a higher starting salary than some other highly regarded districts is a good thing in a competitive market for the best young teachers.

“Our goal is we want to be able to attract and retain a new teacher,” Cofsky said. “We want them to give us a good look and say, ‘this is a place I want to work’ so having a competitive and even a slightly advantageous intro salary is beneficial from that context.”

An OPRF teacher in her 10th year who has a master’s degree will make $91,877 this year. A teacher in his 20th year with master’s degree plus 30 additional graduate credit hours is earning $127,311 this year. A teacher in their 30th year with a master’s degree and no additional graduate hours will now make $124,417. The highest salary on this year’s OPRF salary schedule is $151,200 for a teacher in their 30th year who has a master’s degree and 60 additional graduate school credit hours.

Hardin declined to say what the vote was among teachers to ratify the contract.

“We don’t release the vote publicly,” Hardin said.

Hardin said that the negotiating process was collaborative.

“The Faculty Senate is happy that we settled the contract,” Hardin said. “We have a four-year deal. I think the stability for the district is important and for teachers.”

There were no changes to fringe benefits.

“We maintained current health care, we maintained current retirement,” Cofsky said.

Teachers at OPRF pay 11 percent of their health insurance premiums for the district’s basic PPO plan for single coverage and pay 17 percent of the premiums for family coverage. The district pays the remainder of the premiums for health insurance. OPRF provides dental insurance to teachers at no cost to the teachers.

The advisory period, similar to a Home Room, was changed from 15 minutes daily to 15 minutes twice a week.

Everyone was glad to get the negotiations over and have a new contract in place.

“We’re thrilled to have it done,” said OPRF Superintendent Greg Johnson.

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