Quarter Century Clubbed

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I worked in Hinsdale Township High School District 86 for exactly twenty-five years, from 1987 through 2012, a quarter of a century.  That’s a pretty long time, especially in our modern era when switching jobs has become more frequent.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, baby boomers born between 1957 (my birth year) and 1964 averaged 11.3 jobs between the ages of 18-46 (see http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/nlsoy.pdf).  Me—I had three from 18 to 55: a department store clerking job to pay for college, eight years teaching at Peacock Junior High School, and those twenty-five years in Hinsdale South’s English Department.

The only reason I’m mentioning this in my third year of retirement is that District 86 had a tradition of honoring anyone who taught there for twenty-five years with a banquet, a crystal apple, and an invitation for life to future dinners every year to participate in honoring the latest teachers who had reached that twenty-five year milestone.  It was called the Quarter Century Club, and it seemed like a sincere tribute to fidelity and industry.  Held at Ashton Place in Willowbrook, every year’s ceremony would feature a meal, speeches from that year’s inductees, and a great deal of reminiscing and comradery as working and retired teachers shared memories, current life events, and a sense that District 86 valued those who had devoted so much of their lives to teaching the children of Darien, Hinsdale, Willowbrook, Clarendon Hills, Burr Ridge, and Oak Brook.

But apparently that’s all over now.  In an email sent on February 5th to District 86 employees, an administrator informed all current employees that the Quarter Century Club and the ancillary celebration of employee longevity for the support staff known as the Crystal Club have been jettisoned.  The reason for dumping them, of course, was monetary; recent board meetings have featured much ado being made over a projected spending deficit this fiscal year.  Surpluses are much more common in this wealthy district, but when a deficit looms, the sky is falling and the sternest measures must be taken (despite significant reserves accumulated for just such situations).  Such “nonessential” expenditures as the Quarter Century Club then get cut.  (A copy of the email in its entirety can be found in a February 6th entry on the Supporters of D86 page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Supporters-of-D86/1465158340406853 .)

So that’s it, apparently: No discussion, no deliberation, and no consultation with the full board (one board member commented on the Supporters of D86 Facebook page, “Really? I have to hear about this on FB? Really?”). Like that, a tradition decades old is erased so the district can save a few bucks.  And no, none of the Quarter Century Club members were asked if they would like to keep it going by paying the costs of their dinners, instead of their being free.  (It was always a cash bar, by the way.) With old members paying, the district would only be on the hook for the new members, one guest for each new member, and any district officials who were expected to be there—the superintendent, human resources guy, principals, and school board members.  Assuming, say, $40 per person and as many as forty complimentary dinners, that would lower the total cost to $1600 in a district that spent over $80,000,000 in fiscal 2014 (that $1600 would be a whopping .002% of that total).  And push come to shove, I’m sure the paying members would be willing to pony up an extra $5 apiece to cover the costs of the crystal apples.

There’s no way around the message here—District 86 is transitioning from a place where loyalty and hard work were recognized and appreciated to a place where board members do little besides decry employee salaries and cut every cost possible in order to appear fiscally responsible.  No, the Quarter Century Club was hardly a necessity, and I’m guessing very few other school districts have anything even close to it in terms of its elegance.  But that’s the point in a district that is supposedly one of the top districts in the state.  Creating an atmosphere of uniqueness and class helps to maintain that positive reputation, sends the message to teachers that they are important, and tells the community that continuity and people matter.

But what does this message tell the world?  Nothing good, that’s for sure.  First, the school board comes across as niggardly.  They were fine with refusing tax revenues worth millions of dollars at the behest of their anti-tax supporters, despite the taxing authority to levy at the rate of inflation.  They disrupted the community with extreme teacher contract demands that nearly caused a strike this past fall.  The board president continues to hold forth on how all the financial issues the board claims it has are the fault of teachers and the modest increases mutually agreed to during that painful negotiations process, despite clear and incontrovertible numbers which prove the contract is in no way responsible for any alleged financial strain the district might be experiencing.  Basically, the school board has engineered its projected deficit for this school year, but refuses to accept any responsibility for its questionable numbers.

And in what must be one of the more bitterly ironic twists in recent memory, the target of so much school board invective—the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association (HHSTA)—the teachers’ union, offered to contribute to help defray the costs of the Quarter Century Club so the district could maintain the illusion it still cares about the longevity of its current and retired employees.  But that offer was rejected.  Yeah, that’s as messed up as it sounds:  The teachers’ union was willing to pay the district to continue honoring the district’s teachers, but the district said, “We would prefer not to.”

All this bodes poorly for next school year which will feature the current teachers’ contract expiring in June 2016 and a new one to be negotiated. Negotiations will probably begin in the spring of 2016, at the latest.  Someone with as much negotiating experience as I have (nine contracts over the course of my teaching career—six in District 86, including two as chief spokesperson for the teachers’ union) would be inclined to view the current hand-wringing over District 86’s financial condition as merely a ploy to set up a similar wailing about deficits a year from now.  And most of you probably don’t want to contemplate the war that might take place at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year—it could make you nostalgic for what happened last fall.

Is dumping the Quarter Century Club simply another snub directed at teachers, designed to reinforce who’s really in charge?  One could clearly come to that conclusion.  This board seems inclined to do whatever it can to demonstrate that it believes its employees are overpaid and to assert its power every so often through intimidation.  (Remember the infamous Patch article with the ax picture mistakenly attached and the investigation planned to question the seventeen teachers who had liked that article on Facebook?  You can read about it here if you missed it.  I would especially encourage you to read the first comment under the story’s main text by Jack Covey for the full story. )  The board continues to hire as many law firms as it wants, racking up significant fees—a third was recently added, despite three board members not finding out about the new addition until after the firm had already begun billing hours, basically because the board president wanted “another set of eyes” reviewing all the legal challenges to his questionable behavior.  More legal wrangling will now ensue as both a community member and one of the three board members who is not part of the anti-teacher majority have called for investigations into this apparent breach of the Open Meetings Act—you know, the Act referenced on the board members’ web page on the district site where asterisks next to all board members’ names indicate they have completed training in how the Act works.

I had hoped that the circus that District 86 was becoming during this past fall’s negotiations would abate once a settlement was finally reached, but that hope seems in vain at this point.  Four months after the board voted 4-3 to approve the new contract, the games continue.  From tax levy issues to appearances on radio talk shows hosted by a man so conservative he calls President Obama a “Muslim enemy of the United States,” members of the board majority seem hell-bent on continuing their actions which have severely damaged the reputation for education excellence and decorum District 86 has had in the past.  Abruptly dumping the Quarter Century and Crystal Clubs just continues this downward spiral.

For those who see this as a small, insignificant, meaningless cost-savings to which I am overreacting; that is a possibility.  But my view is one shared by many now ex-members of the Quarter Century Club.  And since several of my retired colleagues are still active in the education world, you can imagine how they are speaking to others about their old district.  District 86 retirees already had one serious violation of trust when a different board (Rick Skoda was part of this board, by the way) tried to change agreed upon insurance payments for retired teachers in 2006.  (I participated in the grievance the union filed and won to prevent this injustice.)  Now, the district is essentially cutting ties with all its past employees who worked, at minimum, twenty-five years at either Hinsdale South or Central.  If the Quarter Century Club had to go, then at the very least there could have been a better way to handle that decision—I’m guessing that a significant percentage of those who used to be members haven’t even heard about its being euthanized yet.

For those of us who have witnessed this progression, it’s really no big a deal not to be recognized by District 86.  I am disappointed for any of my colleagues who would have joined this year; especially since their qualification would mean that I spent over twenty years working with them.  And I will miss catching up with some of my old friends whom I don’t get a chance to see very much any more.  But getting dressed up and acting like it’s an honor to have been a part of District 86 doesn’t feel like the right thing to do right now.  I certainly wouldn’t encourage any soon-to-be or current teachers to apply for openings there.  This school board—and we’ve been talking about the four members who have engineered this decline—makes it embarrassing to admit that I used to work there.  The teachers, support staff, and retired employees of Hinsdale Township High School District 86 deserve so much better than this board is providing, and we can only hope that steps are taken soon to stop the continued erosion of what was once a terrific school district.

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