Getting Immersed in District 112 Teachers' Contract Negotiations
Ed Brill describes his attempt to learn all there is to know about the contentious contract negotiations between Highland Park's elementary and middle school district and its teachers.
I don't know what "lane changes" or "steps" are.
In trying to make sense of the current impasse between District 112 administration and teachers, I am being asked to learn a whole new vocabulary. The dispute seems in part to center around salaries as it pertains to these terms, yet neither side has adequately explained what they are or why they matter.
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Actually, even after reading both the District 112 Board and the teacher's union's "final offer" papers, I'm completely lost as to why there is a threat of a strike looming in District 112. As I understand it, the teachers are working without a contract. That alone is certainly a valid basis for anger, tension and threats. They are concerned about benefits, about being compensated for obtaining advanced degrees, and about competitive salaries. The district is concerned about expense outpacing income, escalating costs, especially for pensions and anticipated expenditures.
The teachers are still being paid under the terms of their just-expired three-year contract, one which saw the average teacher's salary rise between 13.8 percent and 17.72 percent, depending on which side you believe. During the same period, the district, by law, was only able to raise tax assessments around 8 percent, set by the consumer price index and a "new construction" factor. District 112 has apparently only been able to maintain a balanced budget by cutting many programs throughout all the schools.
Before my neighbors start egging my house or slashing my tires, I should state unequivocally that I support our teachers. I myself went to school here in Highland Park, have children who are or will be District 112 students, and am friends with teachers in multiple schools. I respect the incredible job they do, I volunteer in the schools to help, and am disappointed that they have been put in a position of having to fight for what they believe in. Every teacher I have worked with in District 112 deserves to be recognized and rewarded. They are top-notch teachers, and on that there is no question.
Still, I am extremely confused by the teachers' union's tactics. At school drop-off and pickup last week, my child essentially had to cross picket lines of teachers holding signs, dressed in black. She was afraid to get out of the car in the morning, and didn't really understand what was going on. I realize that the teachers' union has fewer tools available to reach parents with their message than the Board does, but it seems to me that the "in front of the children" protest created an unnecessary level of anxiety amongst the students and families. On their Facebook page, teachers are complaining that the district is using its newsletter and website to communicate to parents, yet I don't remember anyone from the administration or board standing out at the pickup line handing out flyers.
Meanwhile the District cites a lot of statistics but doesn't seem to be trying to put a human face on their end at all. It seems the District could make very simple arguments -- our revenues are increasing at this rate, our expenses are increasing at that rate. The District briefly points out in their paper that the salaries paid in District 112 are currently the 3rd-highest in Lake County elementary districts, and that Lake County is among the highest in the state. I looked through the entire state salary document, and found that salaries in District 112 are indeed comparable to Northbrook District 27, Deerfield District 109, Lake Forest District 67 (where starting salaries are lower), and except for at the top end in terms of length of service, even Winnetka District 36. For benefits, District 112 is comparable to all of those except Deerfield 109, who seem to pay much more of their teacher's insurance.
The problem is I had to dig all that information up on my own, from both sides, even after reading the fact sheets from both District and teachers, and hundreds of comments on the news stories here on Patch and elsewhere. A source tells me that the Board of Education has imposed its own silence on the topic, other than official communication. I am not sure what the basis is for that, but they will completely lose in the court of public opinion by sticking to newsletters and Powerpoint presentations.
The teachers deserve the right benefits, competitive wages and not to have promises broken. All of these seem like fair reasons to be at the point where they are at. The district has the right to manage its finances properly, especially as they cannot simply raise taxes at a rate that would allow them to meet all the demands.
All of us in Highland Park know that our property taxes are what pay for the incredible school systems available to our children. We choose to live here, and pay accordingly for that education. We also work hard to elect a quality school Board, through caucuses and debates.
It seems like both sides moved closer in their "final offer" papers. Perhaps by the time of the Oct. 4 mediation, the brinkmanship can end and the solution can be worked out. Otherwise, we're just going to see a lot of lingering tension and anger, amongst people -- on both sides -- who really need to be the most strongly-supported professionals in town.