What We Learned from District 86: Teachers

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It’s about time to move on from the saga that was the Hinsdale Township High School District 86 and Hinsdale High School Teachers Association’s (HHSTA) recently concluded contract negotiations.  This contentious soap opera came about after a new school board majority came to power and tried to change just about everything:  salary schedule, equitable teaching assignments, merit pay, retirement incentive bonuses, teacher insurance contributions, teacher dress codes, and board/teacher meetings.  Ed Corcoran and Rick Skoda led the board on this odyssey; using press releases, fliers, emails, and closed press conferences to try to sway public opinion. (Many, including myself, found their tactics both divisive and destructive.  See https://jamescrandell.wordpress.com/2014/10/24/what-we-learned-from-district-86-school-boards/ for more on what we learned about the school board from this situation.)  In the end, after two emotionally charged board meetings, the board voted 4-3 to ratify the new contract which had already been approved by the teachers.  Almost everyone breathed a sigh of relief that a teachers’ strike had been averted.  And oddly enough, those supporting the teachers felt like the HHSTA had “won,” while those who favored the board positions grumbled about how the union had once again subverted any attempts to rein in its unlimited power.

Well, first off, you need to know that I once was one of those omnipotent union people (or as some on the school board always write, Union), having taught for thirty-three years in two school districts and acting as association president and contract negotiator in both.  Twenty-five of those thirty-three years were in District 86 at Hinsdale South.  So keep my obvious bias in mind as I walk you through why those congratulations and grumblings are mostly wrong. (Yes, I’m hoping you’ll also keep in mind my obvious expertise, but that would be gauche to mention.)

First off, let’s start with a few numbers from the contract itself.  Take a look at how the board majority’s issues fared in the new 2014-2016 deal compared to the teachers’ previous contract (2010-2014):

  1. Base salary increases

PC (Previous Contract, 2010-14)—2.5%, 2.5%, 0%, 1.23% (an average of 1.56% per year);

NC (New Contract, 2014-2016)—1.02% and 1.05% (1.035%, or 0.525% less per year).

  1. Salary Schedule:

PC—Five lanes: Bachelor of Arts Degree with12 steps based on years of experience, BA+15 graduate credit hours past a BA with12 steps, Master’s Degree with18 steps, Master’s+30 graduate level credit hours past a Master’s with19 steps, and Master’s+60 with19 steps;

NC—Four lanes: BA with 6 steps, Master’s with18 steps, Master’s+30 with 19 steps, and Master’s+60 with19 steps.

  1. Merit Pay:

PC—Nothing;

NC—Teachers only get advanced on the salary schedule (steps) if they have received a “Proficient” or “Excellent” rating as determined by building administrators.

  1. Teacher retirement incentives:

PC—Qualifying teachers got salary enhancements of 6% a year for four years prior to retirement;

NC—Qualifying teachers will get 3% a year for four years.

  1. Teacher Insurance Cost Contributions:

PC—Single coverage + dental at $67.35 per month, Family at $184.15 with a clause that when overall increases in insurance costs for the district exceeded 10% in one calendar year, teachers would pay 50% of those costs in excess of 10%.  During the course of the contract, no increases above 10% happened and those teacher contributions were roughly 12%-13% of the insurance costs;

NC—Single and Family—15% of cost for insurance (including dental) in 2015 and 18% in 2016.  Additionally, those with spouses who have insurance at their place of work but choose to be on District 86’s coverage will now have to pay an additional $25 per month.

  1. Retired Teacher Insurance Cost Contributions

PC—Retired teachers could stay on District 86 insurance by paying 50% of insurance cost for first five years and 70% for second five or Medicare eligibility, whichever came first;

NC—Retired teachers can stay on District 86 insurance by paying 70% of insurance costs for ten years or Medicare eligibility, whichever comes first.

  1. Board/Teacher Meetings:

PC—Quarterly meetings between HHSTA representatives and board members;

NC—No meetings.

  1. Teaching Periods:

PC—All teachers teach five periods per day;

NC—No change despite the board’s having proposed PE teachers be required to teach six periods.

  1. Dress Code:

PC—No dress code;

NC—No dress code, despite the board’s proposed “business casual” standard and a ban on any clothes with union insignias.

No matter how you look at it, the new contract is measurably worse than the 2010-14 deal for the teachers in all areas except for #8 and #9, where the status quo was maintained.  So from a statistical vantage, I don’t see how anyone can claim that the union won a huge victory here.  And the most important number of all—the base salary increase which filters down throughout the salary schedule (See https://jamescrandell.wordpress.com/2014/08/10/teacher-salary-schedule-background/ if you need more information on how salary schedules are set up)—went up the second and third lowest amounts for as far back as I can check, the 1985-86 school year, when the base salary went from $17,100 to $17,750, a 3.8% increase.  And the lowest and fourth lowest base increases in that thirty-year span are 2012-13 (0%) and 2013-14 (1.23%).  So the facts show teacher salary increases in District 86 have significantly slowed down.

And all the other issues moved toward the board’s positions as well:  Insurance contributions from teachers will go up, teacher retirement incentives will be half what the state allows (and total less in four years than Rick Skoda got in one of his four 20%-increase years), the salary schedule will have one less lane and one other lane will have six fewer steps, a form of merit pay has been instituted, and the board won’t have to endure any of those annoying meetings with teachers anymore.  The only issues where the teachers maintained what they had (never mind any improvements) were in preventing PE teachers from having to teach an extra period and warding off a dress code (which probably wouldn’t have survived a legal challenge even if it had been agreed to).  The HHSTA didn’t make huge concessions on any of those issues—like scrapping the entire salary schedule as the board wanted for much of the time the two sides were negotiating—but each of these small steps create a certain momentum that isn’t easy to break in future negotiations.

And I hasten to add that this wasn’t the fault of the teacher negotiators.  They did a marvelous job in keeping their heads down; persisting in their bottom line; and moving to a reasonable, rational offer to a board team intent on all-or-nothing.  It’s sort of like Chris Sale the past two years with the White Sox—thank God they have him, but the Sox are still in the position of trying to put a good light on a season where they only won 73 games.  Sale’s skill in excelling despite his surroundings relates to this HHSTA’s team’s performance relative to this school board, but it doesn’t totally wipe out a mediocre result.  Sadly, the main thing to be said is that without Chris Sale and HHSTA negotiators, the end outcomes would have been truly awful.

Yet, despite having made progress in almost all areas in which they had issues, Corcoran, Skoda, and Manley couldn’t support the new contract.  And their backers have been bashing the contract whenever someone writes about it—you’ll probably see someone critique this essay when it appears in the Patch.  Terms like “union thugs” and “unsustainable” as well as complaints about overpaid teachers would make it seem as if this contract were a disaster from which the district will never recover.  And right on cue, Corcoran made adjustments to his calculations for the financial future of the district so that budget surpluses previously projected for the next five years all turned into deficits, with the most dramatic change appearing in fiscal 2019 which showed a surplus of $6.7 million in one document currently still on the District 86 website, but was transformed into a $4.7 million deficit when his new “assumptions” were applied.

In contrast, teacher supporters seem simply relieved that the threat of a teachers’ strike has now been postponed for two years, but unless they face the reality of the persistent, vocal, active anti-teacher sentiment in their communities that sees teachers and their unions as the enemy; the situation will only worsen.  Next time, Hinsdale could end up like Waukegan where a teachers’ strike closed schools this fall for an entire month.

All of which points to the shift in this country’s attitudes towards its teachers.  Education has never been more important to the majority of Americans, but it appears that those who provide that education have been diminished in the public’s eyes.  Tenure laws have been litigated in California with a decision (currently on appeal) to strike it down, and New York could be next.  A few Silicon Valley billionaires have decided they know best how schools should be run and have begun exerting their significant influence to de-emphasize teachers in favor of technology.  Time magazine just ran a cover story about how it is “nearly impossible” to fire a bad teacher. And a current school board member believes that the privilege of working with such great kids in such great towns means that District 86 should “not be paying above market wages” for teachers.  And that’s not even taking into account the forced (mostly negative) changes brought on by national programs like No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Common Core.  Everybody seems to know better than teachers what to do about our schools.

And that’s why we’re getting nowhere with the important work of improving the quality of education in America.

Teaching is about relationships, pure and simple.  Think back to the most influential teachers you ever had.  If you’re like most of us, there are a couple you will always remember as being very important to your development as a person.  Now, think about why that teacher or those teachers made such a difference to you.  Was it because he was really good with technological innovations, like PowerPoint over filmstrips?  Was it because she increased your standardized test scores by 7.6%?  Was it because they never wore any IEA t-shirts?  Nope, in most cases it was because of the kind of people she and he were.  They spoke to your unique personality because of their unique personalities.  Their humanity related to yours in special ways that you could never objectify, but boy, did you know that connection was real.

Today, however, we are moving away from that expression of personality being allowed, much less encouraged.  All the “experts” seem to be preaching standardization, top-down control, and lock-step movement through curricula designed by outside consultants.  But those “improvements” will never allow teachers to influence their students like Mr. Corsaky influenced me.

Albert Corsaky taught me geometry my sophomore year at Cedar Ridge High School in Matawan, New Jersey.  Crew cut with those always lovely short-sleeved shirts to complement his skinny ties, he couldn’t have looked more the dork if he’d tried.  So, right off the bat, he appealed to someone as dorky as I was (er…am).  But he was anything but dorky in his classroom, where his huge personality made each period another memory.  He always operated at top volume and made dumb jokes; he taught us to use a slide rule, singing, “DCD, DCD, That is where I want to be” (I could explain that to you if you really want to understand the beauty of this primitive calculating instrument which has been relegated to the status of an abacus thanks to calculators.  Did I mention in the beginning of this that I’m ancient?); and he made math come alive for a student who had always preferred English and history.

In our current environment, Mr. Corsaky would probably be fired for his unorthodox methods, not to mention his refusal to move on to the next concept until we’d fully grasped the intricacies of what preceded it.  “Angle/Side/Angle, Side/Angle/Side, but never Angle/Side/Side—no, no, no!”  Yet, here it is, over forty years later, and I can still picture his antics in front of the class, striding up and down the aisles, booming out questions and instructions, never giving us the chance to lose focus or stay anything but totally engaged.  Even more amazing, I still retain some basic geometry concepts.  Because Mr. Corsaky was allowed to be himself, I learned much more than I ever would have he been restrained by Bill Gates or tethered to the Common Core.  (“What did the acorn say when it grew up?  ‘Gee, I’m a tree!’”)

In the end, what we really should learn from the District 86 situation is that we’re moving in a way that devalues teachers in favor of spreadsheets, vouchers, business “sense,” charter schools, and outside consultants ignoring the individual skills every teacher has in favor of standardization.  And what these “reformers” have never understood is that those directions will never improve our schools to any significant degree.  Instead, we should be nurturing, celebrating, encouraging, and supporting our teachers.  We need more Mr. Corsakys, not thousands of automatons fearful that if they deviate even slightly from what has been decreed from above, they will be fired.  And that will remain my mantra as we continue examining ways to make sure that each and every school has the opportunity to be valued and to grow as the wonderfully one-of-a-kind place it is.

For more on how to set it up so that teachers are encouraged to express their unique personalities in the classroom to improve student learning, see my eBook, Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found at http://www.snowflake-schools.com/snowflake-schools-the-book.html.

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One comment

  1. h86ssa

    Great article Jim! The Hinsdale Support Staff Association are counting on you to keep us in the forefront while we go up against the board in our first ever bargaining negotiations. You think the board was dirty to the teachers, you should see what they’re trying to do to us! Keep up the great work!

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