Salary Schedule Suggestions

In the first of these teacher salary schedule analyses, we went over the basics: What a schedule looks like, how it works, and the alternative Hinsdale Township High School District #86 school board negotiators want to put in its place (no steps for experience, but a flat 75% of CPI, one-time $4,000 bonus for a subject-area Master’s plus up to $1,250 for positive teacher evaluations. In the second article, we saw how that non-schedule proposal would cost teachers tens of thousands in lost wages over the course of twenty years of work (a teacher working on a salary schedule in Lyons #204, for example, would be making over $70,000 a year more than her counterpart in Hinsdale if the differences proposed between the two districts continued for twenty years. Long before that, we determined, Hinsdale would become the island of lost teachers: young teachers scrambling to get hired someplace else and weary older teachers who would feel (rightly, in my view) that they had been betrayed by the school district to which they had devoted so much of their working lives. What you wouldn’t find would be mid-career, ambitious, talented teachers (which are currently in the district in abundance) since they would have found better places in which to work.

It seems highly unlikely that the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association (HHSTA) negotiators would ever bring back a contract proposal to its teachers without a salary schedule unless HHSTA leadership were looking for an overwhelming rejection by the teachers prior to a strike. And one of the few things that both sides agree on right now, it seems, is that nobody wants a strike. So what to do? As an HHSTA member and teacher for twenty-five years until my retirement in 2012 who participated in eight contract negotiations during that time, I have a couple of suggestions.

The first thing that has to happen is for the board to drop its insistence that the teachers agree to eliminate the salary schedule. Period. There is no way the school board, represented by Rick Skoda and Ed Corcoran, is ever going to be willing to make the non-salary schedule offer lucrative enough (like giving every teacher 5% more per year and making the merit pay bonuses $5,000 a year, for example) to get the teachers to agree to dumping the schedule. It will not happen. Nor will the teachers ever vote in the proposal as it exists right now. That won’t happen. Or, neither scenario will happen without a protracted strike that will leave the community torn apart, teachers feeling resentful and bitter, and everybody (parents, teachers, and board members) looking for alternatives to living, working, or serving in District #86). The board has to accept that its financial condition is just too good by any measure to justify this attempt to force the teachers off the salary schedule.

That doesn’t mean that the board has to surrender on all its objectives. One articulated goal was to institute merit pay, for example: So, assuming the board conceded the salary schedule would remain, what if the HHSTA agreed that any teacher who had one of the poor evaluations (needs improvement or unsatisfactory) would forgo his/her step and be restricted from changing lanes until she/he had achieved one of the two good evaluations (excellent or proficient). Too much for the teachers to accept? Okay, how about just no step or lane change for unsatisfactory teachers and no step for those who have been documented to need improvement? That’s what negotiating entails, making compromises and small changes to progress toward a long-range goal. And don’t get me wrong; I have absolutely no love for merit pay and believe it to be a bad idea for school districts. But restricting raises for teachers who have had their deficiencies documented might be a reasonable compromise on that particular issue.

As far as teacher pay goes, once the board has admitted that salary schedules exist and District #86 will have one, then the two sides can talk about any and all issues the might impact that schedule. The base salary increase, number of steps, index numbers, number of graduate credit hours a teacher can earn in a year, what types of degrees the district wants its teachers pursuing, and the value of degrees versus individual classes on various topics (student discipline, running small groups, computer skills, economic/racial/religious/orientation differences, etc.) would ALL be open for discussion, and the board could seek out smaller changes to make sure the district is getting its money’s worth when paying for the experience and education of its staff.

Some of you might think that the HHSTA should initiate salary schedule modifications first as a means to show the board that it is willing to work this out, but I wouldn’t advise that: Until the board has clearly and unequivocally given up on trying to eliminate the schedule, any movement by the teachers would be interpreted as a sign that holding out could lead to complete victory for the eliminators. The key to a reasonable settlement that can lead to the healing of the many, many wounds this negotiations has inflicted on just about everyone is the board’s stepping back from the brink and working with the teachers. And the best way to begin that process is for the board to renounce any plans to do away with the method by which salaries are determined for over 99% of the teachers in Illinois.

Keep in mind that this desire to abandon salary schedules in District #86 is a crusade, a philosophical pipe dream, vengeance for past contracts, a way to prove to the community how tough board members are, a key to political advancement, or a little of all of the above—whatever rationale you’d like to use for a goal that is in no way economically necessary. The finances of the district are excellent, no matter what audit or report you can cite, and despite all the alleged excesses of the past or how many times Corcoran claims that current salaries are “unsustainable,” District #86 operates in the black almost all the time, has healthy reserves, hasn’t increased its tax rate in forty years, and has been able to make multi-million dollar additions (we’re talking field houses, science wings, and libraries) to both high schools many times in the past thirty years without once having to seek permission or additional monies from its voters through a referendum. This salary schedule battle, no matter what alleged facts people throw around, is NOT about District #86’s being in financial trouble. The vast majority of other school districts in the area would trade their bank accounts for Hinsdale #86’s in a heartbeat.

And once the simple act of taking the poison pill off the table happened, you would see the contract fall into place pretty quickly. Of course there are many issues that remain to be bargained, but they can be much more readily worked on collaboratively than the fight over having or not having a salary schedule. That single concession by the board would let the teachers know that a deal could now be reached. Rhetoric would cool down, numbers could be crunched, and language could be finalized without the “We must win, and you must lose,” tenor that currently dominates. Negotiations could stop being the dominant focus at the high schools; the teachers could put away their blue t-shirts; and the board could go back to harping at its administrators, lawyers, and suppliers as the Supreme Being has always intended for them to do. And most importantly, the students and the teachers could get back to the truly important work of the district: Education.

Finally both sides need to drop the denigrating references to the other side through various media outlets. The HHSTA and its allies don’t need to refer to the majority board members as “Tea Party” activists who are advancing their political agendas; the district had fiscal conservatives like Ezat Doss, Leo Morrissey, and Don O’Neil long before this group came on the board or the term “Tea Party” had even been coined, and it does little to improve communication and progress to dismiss their opinions with some negative label. By the same token, Skoda and Corcoran have to recognize that you don’t have to call people names in order to insult them. To insist that teachers are not worth the salaries they are currently making is an insult to every teacher in the district. No matter how you sugar-coat that reality or how many vague abstractions about valuing and respecting teachers you drop, proposing a salary schedule that would lead to significant decreases in teacher take-home pay without any financial need to do so would certainly seem disrespectful to me. To publicize your belief that there are plenty of other teachers out there who could be hired instead of those you have right now, as Corcoran has, hardly sends a message of veneration or value to your employees. Everybody needs to ratchet down the bombast and begin mutually respectful discussions that will lead to a contract that can be approved by both sides.

Skoda has recently been prefacing the audience comments portion of board meetings with requests for specific help in coming to a reasonable, peaceful resolution to the ongoing contract negotiations; and I don’t think this advice could be any more specific or simpler to enact: Pull the no-salary-schedule proposal off the bargaining table. Once that act has occurred, District #86 can return to its rightful place as one of the best districts in the state for education. Fail to do that, and we all can look forward to a protracted, increasingly nasty negotiations process; continued three-ring circuses under the guise of board meetings; more overt demonstrations of teacher dissatisfaction; more quality educators leaving the district; a teachers’ strike; and/or seven more agonizing months of further squabbling and finger-pointing until the next board election in April either changes the majority on the board or reaffirms that the community wants what Skoda, Manley, Cassini, and Corcoran have wrought to continue. The next couple of negotiation sessions will make the direction in which this district is heading clear. Here’s hoping the board backs off its master plan to eviscerate the union and do what’s in everyone’s best interests.

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