With a tentative agreement between the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association (HHSTA) and the Hinsdale Township High School District 86 only a week old and the ratification votes of both sides yet to be taken (although the teachers may have voted by the time this article comes out), charges that some on the school board are “undermining” the deal have surfaced. While I don’t know how reliable or valid these rumblings are, they do point to one characteristic of contract talks that the initial board negotiations team of Ed Corcoran and Rick Skoda never seemed to understand: Negotiating a contract is not about winning or losing; it is not about defeating the other side. It’s about compromise and each side’s feeling like some of their goals have been realized. (I have some experience in this area having participated in at least nine different contract negotiations during my thirty-three-year teaching career, including twenty-five years and six contracts in District 86.)
For those of you new to this on-going saga, the board and HHSTA have been trying to work out a new contract for many months, and a teachers’ strike which could have begun October 14 was narrowly avoided (or at least that’s what we thought) when a tentative deal was reached on October 9. This was after an emotional board meeting on October 6 where community members and students railed against the board’s approach for over three hours. I attended this meeting, and I can attest that of the people who spoke (44-65, depending on which source you believe); only three were clearly supportive of the board’s desire to alter the teachers’ salary schedule significantly and to require PE teachers to teach an extra period (among other stumbling blocks). The board then went into closed session for two hours, after which they announced they had unanimously agreed to change their negotiations team to Kay Gallo and Victor Casini, who would make a new proposal to the teachers. After a six-hour meeting on October 9, both sides announced a tentative agreement had been reached, but no details would be revealed until both sides had ratified the new contract. (The Doings did run an article which is pretty detailed about the deal—it can be found at http://hinsdale.suntimes.com/2014/10/15/hinsdale-district-86-agreement-closely-matches-teachers-proposal/.) The board has scheduled its vote for October 20, which will probably be another “interesting” meeting.
Three days later, a newly created site (The D86 Report which can be found at https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-D86-Report/1536154819955370) posted that Skoda and Corcoran were “hard at work undoing the work of their replacements” and “may be acting to renege on the joint proposal.” I have no insights on any of these rumors—neither Skoda nor Corcoran has ever consulted me on anything—but that so many people would believe these two would undermine other board members with this kind of stunt does point to the key problem with how the board majority has approached its mission.
Let’s be clear that Corcoran, Skoda, and board member Claudia Manley’s husband have every right to be against the tentative agreement. Unanimity on something as subjective as a “fair and reasonable” teachers’ contract might be theoretically possible, but definitely shouldn’t be expected. You can be certain that the teachers’ ratification vote will not result in 100% contract approval. A sample vote held on October 5 where teachers were asked to vote yes/no on the proposals from the board and the HHSTA resulted in only 80% approval of the HHSTA proposal. (Over 99% of the teachers who voted rejected the board’s proposal.) And since we don’t know what modifications to the HHSTA proposal were tentatively approved on October 9, it is fair to assume that the final teacher vote will be less than 80%, although I’m pretty sure the teachers will approve the deal.
So a 4-3 vote to approve the new contract by the board would hardly be a surprise. And those three (probably Skoda, Corcoran, and Manley) have every right to try to convince the other four that they too should vote no. Messy as it is, the democratic process requires the minority have its say, regardless of how unpopular those views may be to the majority. As Voltaire famously wrote, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” (Although what he actually wrote was, “Je ne suis pas d’accord avec ce que vous avez à dire, mais je me battrai jusqu’à la mort votre droit de le dire.” Très bon, non?)
What’s interesting isn’t some board members’ working to undo the tentative agreement or those in favor of the agreement’s being approved seeing those efforts as an evil conspiracy, but that everyone seems to be ignoring that the tentative agreement moves much more toward what the board majority wanted all along than what the teachers were after. While I don’t have any confirmed details on the final form of the new contract, The Doings reported the following: 1.02% increase in the base salary in the first year, 1.05% in the second, elimination of one lane in the salary schedule (Bachelor’s plus fifteen graduate credit hours), elimination of several steps in the Bachelor’s lane, increase in insurance contributions from teachers of 3% in the first year and 5% in the second, and the decrease in retirement incentives from 6% to 3% for qualifying teachers’ last four years. The Doings doesn’t mention two other issues, but I would assume that there is no increase in teaching periods for physical education teachers and no non-union insignia dress code in the tentative contract. That’s pretty much the deal.
As someone who negotiated several contracts on the teacher side, I would think this was the board’s proposal if I didn’t know better. To understand what I mean, take a look at the teachers’ last two contracts (past eight years) for District 86: Base salary increases of 4.25%, 4.25%, 4%, 4%, 2.5%, 2.5%, 0%, and 1.23%; no changes at all to the salary schedule, no changes in the teacher insurance contribution language, retirement incentive of 6% for four years (which happened because state law had changed, effectively banning the 20% Skoda Spikes), and requirements that all committees formed in the district follow a “win-win” philosophy which pushed all sides to meet the interests of everyone. In all of those key areas the new tentative agreement is worse for the teachers (except for the one year of 0% increase in the base, which was partially offset by waiving teacher contributions to insurance for eleven months.)
In short, the current deal definitely reflects many more of the board’s goals (reducing the rate of salary increases and raising insurance contributions from employees) than those of the teachers. Yet despite significant progress, the board majority is portraying this deal as somehow a victory for teachers. And because of all the drama and stress, many teacher supporters are accepting this view as well. Had this deal been tentatively approved at the end of last school year after a negotiations process without all the drama, there is no way the teachers would have approved it by the 3-to-1 margin it will probably receive; it might even have been voted down. Intimidation, extreme proposals, and refusal to compromise have led everyone to see this extremely moderate contract for the teachers as a triumph over the dark force of Darth School Board.
I’m not saying this is the worst contract ever, and the HHSTA negotiators deserve immense credit for their patience and perseverance in the face of one of the most difficult board negotiating teams in District 86 history. But no one should buy into the current spin that this deal is ruinous for the district’s finances or has union leaders dancing in the streets. It does serve those trying to derail the agreement to portray the new contract this way; regardless of the outcome of the board’s ratification vote, they will approach the next negotiations process (which could begin as soon as next school year) as one in which the board has to “recover” from the horrible deal it ratified for 2014-16. No, the HHSTA would never accept that as a starting point, so yes, District 86 could be right back where it is now with this destructive pattern by the summer of 2016. The truth is the teachers have been more than reasonable in meeting the board’s needs, and instead of whining about how they didn’t get everything they wanted, the board majority should be figuring out how to heal the wounds their approach has caused.
Hinsdale 86 used to be considered one of the best districts in the state, but its reputation has suffered greatly since the start of the school year. Instead of employing more propaganda to try to prove that this modest contract will destroy the district, Corcoran and Skoda should be satisfied that they achieved much of what they set out to achieve and begin reaching out to the HHSTA to see how they can work together to recover from this ordeal.
The teachers have done their part to compromise with a school board way out of the mainstream. If this board wants to be remembered for anything besides being a nightmare briefly endured, it will quickly change its approach from aggrieved victims to reasonable elected representatives who respect and value the teachers. I know, that seems impossible given the rancor and pettiness of the last months—Geez, Rick, you really had to whine publicly about Kay’s not using “Doctor” in an email?—but everyone should keep working toward that shift in tenor before the District 86 Crisis of 2013-14 turns into a never-ending Great Depression. Great leaders, as ex-history teacher Dr. Skoda should comprehend, know when to fight on and when to accept partial gains to serve the greater good and to prevent further destruction. Take the deal and move on, or you will understand what real crushing defeat is come the next board elections.
Postscript: As this essay was being finalized, Corcoran posted many new financial projections to be reviewed at his Finance Committee meeting to be held on Friday, 10/17, at 7:00 AM in Hinsdale Central’s Community Room. Financial predictions have always been more an exercise in creative writing than fact, so it is not too surprising to see that the projections made by PMA Financial Network now show aggregate budget deficits for every year beginning in fiscal 2015, culminating with a $4.7 million shortfall in 2019, even though the same PMA consultants showed aggregate budget SURPLUSES for those same years, with $6.7 million in excess for that same 2019 in a previous document which is still posted on the District 86 website. An $11.4 million shift is less than a week? Well, as Mark Twain wrote, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” (You can find the original projection information at http://hinsdale86.org/departments/BusinessOffice/Documents/PMA%20Financial%20Projection%20Model%201-07-14.pdf –better print this one out before it vanishes—and the new, more dire numbers at http://www.hinsdale86.org/sb/Documents/10%2017%2014%20Finance%20Committee/IX%20FPP%20reports%2010-15-14.pdf.) I guess it’s going to be another couple of fun-filled days in District 86.