In a recent letter to the Hinsdale Doings, Roger Kempa commented about the on-going contract negotiations between the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association (HHSTA) and the school board, saying that for the teachers, “The bottom line is quite simply ‘greed.’” (You can find his letter at http://hinsdale.suntimes.com/2014/08/07/letter-schools-hinsdale-district-86-union-position-is-greed/.) And this attitude toward teachers is hardly uncommon these days. Greed means many things to many people, so I won’t flat out state Kempa’s characterization is nonsense; but my definition of greed and his don’t share much in common. (Just so there’s no confusion about my own biases, I was a teacher in District #86 for twenty-five years until my retirement in 2012.)
Teachers appear greedy, apparently, when they want a raise. The reasons for teachers’ wanting raises generally fall into one of the following categories: The cost of living has increased, and they want to keep pace. They have new expenses outside of their normal budget (medical conditions, kids going to college, unexpected household/automotive expenses). They want to buy a house. They’d like to increase their discretionary spending (vacations, eating out, movies, etc.). Births have increased the size and expense of their families. They want to save more for future costs (retirement, college, house remodeling). Their parents’ fixed retirement incomes are no longer enough and their children (who happen to be teachers) need to help out more. There are myriad other reasons why teachers might want a raise, but these would probably be the most common since teachers are just like everybody else.
One reason you don’t see on that list is the accumulation of wealth. Teachers have been characterized in many ways, but monetarily advantaged rarely makes the list. To me, being greedy is when you don’t really have any need or use for what you seek outside of the craven desire to have more. Wanting your kid to go to a four-year college in another state as opposed to living at home while attending a junior college doesn’t qualify as greed in my book. Desiring more than you already have just because you want your bank account to grow by a couple of bucks, especially at the expense of others—that’s greed to me.
Which is precisely what Kempa and his ilk seem to advocate. In order to achieve his goal of lowering District #86 teacher salaries through the elimination of the teachers’ salary schedule and locking the teachers out should they dare to insist on wages comparable to every high school teacher in the area, he would decrease their quality of life, and probably wouldn’t have a problem doing the same to every teacher in the country. That seems pretty drastic, so what he and his fellow community members get in return must be pretty amazing.
Well, not so much. The “upside” to lowering the earning power of all teachers and making teaching a much less desirable profession for anyone to pursue would be, at most, a few hundred bucks off his yearly property tax bill. The levy freeze the District #86 board voted in this past November—which Kempa thought was wonderful—probably netted taxpayers anywhere from $20-$50 per household. Not exactly lifestyle-altering amounts, by any standard, especially when you consider that four of the district’s communities (Hinsdale, Oakbrook, Clarendon Hills, and Burr Ridge) are clearly upper-to-upper-middle class towns.
And even if the teachers were willing to take huge pay cuts to placate Kempa, the current board majority already has plans to build a multi-million dollar aquatic center at Hinsdale Central with any money they might accumulate. Does that make the board greedy in Kempa’s book, since it would be placing new facilities ahead of taxpayer savings? My guess is he wouldn’t have any problem with this since District #86 has a long history of major building additions and renovations over the past thirty years to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. And not once during that time did any school board put these proposed cost increases before the public through a referendum (as the spirit of current law intends). Yet, the board has now voted to conduct an advisory referendum on whether or not teachers are entitled to end-of-career salary raises which increase their retirement incomes.
Now known as “pension spiking,” these provide for salary increases in teachers’ final four years at 6% annually, instead of the normal salary increases all teachers receive. So if the negotiated salary for one year were 2% more than the previous year, “spiking” teachers would get an additional 4% for a total of 6%. Ten years ago, however, these spikes were known by the much friendlier-sounding “bumps,” even though they were generally 10% increases on up. Ironically, one of Kempa’s new heroes, Rick Skoda, got four years of 20% pension spikes from 2004-2008, increasing his salary from $88,000 to almost $170,000. But none of the “greedy teacher” protesters ever mentions that since Skoda is leading the way in trying to lower teacher salaries, although I do wonder how Kempa feels about his champion being one of biggest spikers ever.
Then too there is the amazingly healthy financial condition of the district. Even before a single tax dollar for the new school year had been collected, District #86 was sitting on a reserve (savings) account with over $22,000,000 in it. Is it greedy for the district to continue to amass large amounts of cash? Again, the teacher critics are silent on this issue. It seems as if the only ones who come in for the harsh judgment of greed based on wanting more money are the ones who are the heart and soul of the school system—the teachers.
It’s time for those who benefit from the quality job the teachers of District #86 to reject the negativism coming from those who care only about lowering their tax bills on the backs of hard-working public servants. A teacher’s earning over $100,000 seems to make normally rational people lose control and lash out at highly educated, experienced, dedicated people who accept responsibility for educating the most important resource any community has—its children. Should taxpayers be willing to pay their teachers a reasonable, middle-class wage, or do they want to risk losing the superior education District #86 teachers have traditionally provided so Roger Kempa can save a few dollars on his property tax bill? The answer seems obvious to me, but perhaps we need an advisory referendum to be certain. Teachers do not deserve the “greedy” tag; especially coming from people for whom that label is a much better fit.