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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. 

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wendy posnock September 28, 2012 at 09:51 PM
Ed. Personally i am someone with a very strong supportive attitude for our teachers; I appreciate your valuable and insightful comments. I also have an extensive financial background so I have also done a lot of digging to understand the districts financial issues. The bottom line, we have been able to increased our reserve and operating funds over the past three years even through an "expensive" prior teachers contract. The board's last offer is abysmal to the teachers and will truly result in a large reduction in take home pay for our teachers. The administrators costs in this district are very high and they are not being asked to take those same cuts. The teachers are willing to give up a lot with their last offer - but the board's offer is offensive and shows a significant lack of respect to our educators.
David Greenberg September 29, 2012 at 02:50 AM
"Lane Changes" and "Steps" are based upon a matrix. Columns and Rows. Write different degrees across the columns: BA/BS, BA/BS+9 sh, BA/BS+18 sh, MA/MS, MA/MS+9, MA/MS+18, Ed.D/Ph.D/JD Then write the numbers 1-20 down in the rows - these are the years someone's been on the job. The columns are degrees one holds, or advancement toward a particular degree. In the case of BA+9, someone has a Bachelor of Arts degree and has successfully completed 9 semester hours of graduate work toward a Master's degree. Same deal with the Masters - after they get that, they've taken 9 or 18 semester hours toward a Doctorate. Inside each cell that intersects a particular row and column, there's a salary level. So if someone has a BA degree, they get paid salary X at year 1. If they're still working in D112 the next year, they take a "STEP", and go to salary Y in year 2... and so on. They stay in the BA "lane" (column) until they accumulate enough semester hours of graduate work to shift over to the next "lane" - where they are paid more because they have some graduate work under their belt.
william brown September 29, 2012 at 11:44 AM
Ed What do you mean " we all CHOSE to live here ? You may be surprised that people didn't ALL move here. Some of us were born here. Sadly many give up and move As the newbies take over and change the character of HP
llwvrt September 29, 2012 at 01:21 PM
The board hasn't moved at all- the teachers have offered a number of concessions. If the BOE is so broke, how can it afford to pay current salaries and insurance through the end of the school year? Doesn't it make you wonder?
Ed Brill September 29, 2012 at 01:37 PM
Actually no, because they budgeted for these items, and have cut other programs in order to continue to pay salaries and insurance. The board isn't "so broke" but they are not projecting to be able to keep pace in the future. A multi-year negotiation isn't just about this moment in time.
llwvrt September 29, 2012 at 01:43 PM
Which is why the teachers have offered a contract that falls in line with what the board has asked - CPI. Insurance increases for the teachers. The teachers are very aware of the future and not "just this point in time." They understand that the future looks different.
John Russillo September 29, 2012 at 03:20 PM
Nice article, Ed. Let me give you my thoughts on lanes/steps. Many jobs that have unions are jobs where there is really no opportunity for advancement. Take a look at pilots. Every pilot does essentially the same job and the only way to get paid more is seniority. Same with mechanics, auto workers, etc. And of course teachers. Whether you are a first year or 25 year teacher you do the same job. Lanes and steps are ways to advance. You advance a lane when you get more education. You advance a step when you gain a year of seniority. Merit pay should absolutely be factored in and the new evaluations will do that, but in a profession where there are no supervisor, manager, or director positions to aim for, this is the way it has to be done. This is the answer to those who bellyache about why teachers are not treated the same as in the private sector. You get an MBA in the private sector, you have a good chance of becoming a senior analyst, manager, etc. No so for teachers.
Dan Greenberger September 29, 2012 at 05:17 PM
Thank you, Wendy. You answered the question I've been asking. Has the administration been asked to sacrifice as much as the teachers? If not, that is unconscionable. Our tax dollars should be going to the right people. Once those making the decisions show us how they are minimizing administration and maximizing education, I will support them. Until then, i maintain it's not a matter of having enough money, it's a matter of how the money we have is allocated.
Pamela Kramer September 29, 2012 at 05:31 PM
Ed, thank you for a fairly balanced article. One clarification is that there were no program cuts last year. Some of the new teachers were laid off because of reduced numbers, but at the same time there were many rehires. Enrollment is dwindling in many schools which accounted for the layoffs. Class sizes have not increased. Also, although the NSEA made a HUGE change in its offer between the last negotiations session and the final offer, the board made none (or at least none that the NSEA can see). As was pointed out by one commenter, not only was the district able to pay the higher raise, lane changes, insurance costs, and a $37,000 bonus to the Superintendent, they were still able to put an additional almost 2 million into their funds. Now, the NSEA is offering almost 1/2 million dollars in insurance concessions. (Yes, the actual savings in teacher insurance is just under $400,000, but because the whole district follows the teacher's contract, the total savings to the district IS INDEED almost $500,000, in spite of what the district might claim.) Please visit the NSEA website for complete information. http://district112teachers.org/
David Greenberg September 29, 2012 at 09:26 PM
"...but in a profession where there are no supervisor, manager, or director positions to aim for, this is the way it has to be done..." - what about department chairpersons? Administrative positions? To be certain, there's not a lot of them, but they do exist. Although I see some similarities between your comparison of pilots and teachers, I'm not 100% comfortable with that. Sure, they both gain experience from flight-time or teaching time and that makes them more adept at their jobs. But the outcomes from flying a plane differ greatly from that of a teacher. A pilot is either early, late, or on-time to the destination; or the plane crashes or ends up at a different destination - and we can rate those outcomes accordingly. Teachers are a bit more complex because at a 10,000' view the outcomes are "passed" or "failed" - but when you get the depths of the analysis, that's not really fair to the teacher, and it's why I've advocated that we have different performance metrics for different levels of teachers, and that it be a part of their overall compensation - but not all of it at this point. However, teachers' performance can be measured, should be measured, and they should not receive automatic raises unless their performance proves it.
Colene October 01, 2012 at 02:46 AM
My son was also afraid to go to school after seeing teachers walk the line before school.. Coincidentally, his teacher loudly announced to the class on the first day of school (and to the parents during open house) that she also holds a part-time job at J. Crew (and the children should come see her there!) It's clear that some teachers have their priorities in the wrong place.
llwvrt October 01, 2012 at 03:01 AM
Children follow the lead of their parents; I am sure that once you reassured your son that things were fine, he felt much better. As for the teacher- is it possible that she was being friendly and letting everyone know that she was in the neighborhood so don't be surprised if you see her? Many children are always surprised to see their teachers in stores etc. It was probably just her way of being courteous which seems to be thoughtful.
william brown October 01, 2012 at 12:03 PM
My guess is that today there are more admins in 112 Than 107 108& 111 And my guess is they are paid % wise vs the teachers higher than before. HP used to be a destination for a teacher Now it is a resume builder My teachers at Elm Place all taught here for over 30 years They were part of HP 112 is a sad attempt
Colene October 01, 2012 at 02:00 PM
He walks to school - and wasn't able to ask us for clarification or share his anxiety until he got home. I would like to give her the benefit of the doubt - perhaps she really did want to alert the students that she was in the neighborhood, but she gives the appearance of being more excited about her retail job than her job educating our children. During the open house, this new teacher did not tell us anything about her classroom or what the children would be learning this year. She merely stood there, pointing us to our child's desk & "killing time" until our allotted time with her was up.
Ellie Rubenstein October 02, 2012 at 12:26 AM
I'm so glad John R. wrote what he did. Some people who spoke at the last Board meeting enjoyed claiming that those in "the private sector" don't receive reimbursement, salary increases or promotions for advancing their degrees, which, of course, they most certainly do. They are often rewarded quite well as a matter of fact. On another note, to those who argue that teachers "don't care about the students", please know that the students are exactly the ones we care about. We want to provide them with the best, most capable, informed and enthusiastic teachers; teachers who are talented enough to challenge, support, motivate and instill a love of learning. How can we do this when our opportunities for professional development are discouraged? Lastly, none of the administrators have suggested freezing or cutting their salaries or reducing their insurance benefits. It is sad that teachers, who are paid the least, are being asked to repair a fiscal mess we didn't cause.
David Greenberg October 02, 2012 at 07:05 AM
SOME people in the private sector receive reimbursement, etc for advancing their degrees - but there's a difference between that and the Public Sector. In the Private Sector, there are tax advantages available to the Company which is why they restrict those reimbursements to $5250/yr for graduate courses - that's what they can write off their taxes. Also, I've never known anyone to finish a degree and get an automatic salary increase, or promotion. Generally speaking, the Company *might* choose to reimburse courses (after the employee obtained approval), and then if and when the employee's performance was such that it was warranted, the employee would qualify for a possible raise out of a pool of money set aside for such raises. Not everyone who qualified would get a raise, or get a raise similar to other persons who received raises. Further, promotions were based upon availability of openings, qualifications of the applicants, etc. Thus, if someone HAD an advanced degree, they'd be considered for a promotion that required such credentials, but wouldn't if they didn't have them. In some instances, the Company finds it less expensive to simply send a capable employee for training at the Company's expense, than to conduct a search and attempt to hire a candidate. They need the resource now, and want a known person to handle that need. This is not quite the case when you have 60,000 potential candidates in the pipeline.
David Greenberg October 02, 2012 at 07:09 AM
"We want to provide them with the best, most capable, informed and enthusiastic teachers; teachers who are talented enough to challenge, support, motivate and instill a love of learning. How can we do this when our opportunities for professional development are discouraged?" - how about the same way you did all these things when you first started teaching? "...none of the administrators have suggested freezing or cutting their salaries or reducing their insurance benefits..." - That's because the current discussion involves the teachers, not the administrators. But somehow I suspect that their salaries/benefits will be reined in as well in the future.
Ellie Rubenstein October 02, 2012 at 11:38 AM
David: While it is true that the discussion is about the teachers' contract, the reason for all the cuts being proposed is not that we suddenly don't deserve pay raises, professional development salary increases, or affordable healthcare. The problem is that we are (supposedly) experiencing a budget deficit. I merely state the obvious; if the entire district is in a financial crisis, why are administrators not taking any financial cuts or responsibility? They are, after all, part of the reason we are in this mess. The teachers are not the ones who poorly managed district funds .
David Greenberg October 03, 2012 at 05:41 AM
Ellie, no one deserves a pay raise or professional development salary increase unless they can prove through their performance that they should be considered for one. As for affordable healthcare - who in the Private Sector really has that? Our rates have been going up and up and up for as long as I can remember, while the Unionized teachers seemed to get 100% healthcare picked up by the District (or some high percentage for themselves/family). Now an economic correction is occurring to those contracts and we have a lot of consternation. The District is in a financial crisis - I saw it years ago when I sat on the Citizens Finance Committee for D112, others saw it earlier than that. There's too many buildings, too many administrators, too much bloat. The District did what it could over the past few years to cut costs (utility savings, etc) and did quite well at that - but unfortunately this economic tsunami that's been washing over the World hasn't subsided just yet, and more cuts are required. I don't know what the administrators aren't taking cuts - yet. But once we deal with the hear-and-now, the Teachers Contract, other issues on the table will have to be dealt with in due course (administration salaries/benefits, infrastructure, and so on).
Mark Stein October 03, 2012 at 06:40 AM
Lets not let the facts get in the way of a good story. District 112 pays 25% of family health insurance. I'm sure you still think that's too much.
David Greenberg October 03, 2012 at 06:59 AM
OK, let's not let the distortion of facts get in the way either - 100% paid by the District for single employees right? And for the record 25% for a family seems like a great start, it should drop down to 10% over the next few years.
Scott October 03, 2012 at 01:55 PM
The reason teachers have to go on strike without a contract is that until a new contract is signed, they are essentially on a pay freeze. They are still getting paid at last years rates (they aren't getting paid for additional years of experience or advanced degrees). The district is currently asking for hard pay freezes in the new contract. Teachers who invested their own money attaining advanced degrees will not be compensated for these degrees. Keep in mind, that pay freezes disproportionally affect young teachers. An elementary school teacher with 6 years experience and tenure gets paid less than 50k a year (even when summer school is included). Older teachers are not affected quite as badly as they are getting paid the high salaries(suburban schools historically offer below market salaries for new teachers but peak better later in the career.) Simply put, this sends the message to new teachers that they should avoid getting tenure at highland park schools and leave for better districts. A young teacher invests time at a suburban school at a lower starting salary on the presumption that sticking with it, performing well, and achieving tenure will eventually lead to better salaries. Teachers recognize that once they achieve tenure it's harder to switch schools. Teachers are therefore careful about what school they choose to tenure at.
David Greenberg October 03, 2012 at 05:15 PM
A "pay freeze" sounds like what lots of other people are on right now. At least they haven't seen a pay cut yet like some people in the Private Sector have. And as I've said previously, there's no reason that they must get paid for additional years of experience or advanced degrees unless and until their individual performance is such that it warrants consideration for a raise. There's also nothing saying that we have to make anyone whole because of a pay freeze and their recent new hire status. Moreover, we ought not to be offering tenure to anyone at the elementary or high school level. Tenure should be reserved for professors at the college/university level because they often teach or espouse controversial subjects, which depending upon the way the winds blow may or may not get them fired. What does an elementary teacher teach that's controversial?
Dan Brunton October 03, 2012 at 09:19 PM
I wouldn't want to live in David Greenberg's world.
Walter White October 03, 2012 at 10:59 PM
Good thing he's the only one who lives in it.
David Greenberg October 04, 2012 at 12:20 AM
What World would that be Dan? One which values fiscal responsibility? Or one which is run by spendthrifts? Personally I prefer the former.
Alexa Martinez October 05, 2012 at 10:09 PM
Teachers in this district are very well paid. No need for more raises that trigger the financial health of our district. In addition there is a trend of failure with Hispanic poor students, an evaluation system will alleviate the problem. Not all teachers are good and with the system we currently have, tenure and advances in the pay scale based on seniority and advanced courses not tied to classroom performance need to go. Teachers need to be paid based on their experience and performance of their students and yes one criteria has to be how students perform in state tests.
Larry Jones October 05, 2012 at 10:35 PM
Meanwhile 112 teachers will call strike on October 16th
Karen October 06, 2012 at 03:21 AM
yes, I agree. I have had four children go thru district 112 schools, and have been disappointed in the uneven quality of the teachers. I also believe that the quality of the teacher training programs in Illinois is not up to par. the Tribune ranked the universities a few years ago, and the results were disheartening. master degree programs are cash cows for schools like National Lewis University and the results--that we taxpayers are being asked to fund--have little impact on teacher quality. Additionally, so many families in the district have the resources to make up for the schools deficits, hiring private tutors and other sources of remediation, that help bolster student results and compensate for teacher deficits. I just don't think we need to pretend that district 112 is somehow graced with extra special all-deserving teachers. they are for the most part hard working professionals entitled to earning a living according to the terms of a fiscally responsible set of guidelines. Period.
Jerry Hopkins October 06, 2012 at 08:00 PM
Amen to that, Dan!

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