Referendums Should Be for Teachers, Too

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On April 4, 2017, voters will be electing local governmental leaders—village officials, school board members, and the like.  Additionally, several communities will have to vote on referendums advanced by their school districts seeking additional funding.  Two of those involve districts in which I have an interest:  Hinsdale Township High School District 86 (where I worked for twenty-five years), which is seeking $76,000,000 for additional classrooms and swimming pool remodeling; and Center Cass School District 66 (which is the elementary district my two daughters attended), which needs over $12,000,000 for various repairs and safety updates.  (You can find the official referendums here–just click “Propositions.)  Yet, one aspect of funding a school district for which you will not see any new monetary requests is the single most important factor in any school’s success—its teachers.

Just to be clear with my background, I taught English for thirty-three years, retiring in 2012 after working in both a junior and senior high school as well as being active in my school districts’ unions (President, negotiator, and grievance chair).  Thus, I have an extreme bias in favor of teachers and the role they play in public education:  No matter what kinds of reforms, programs, or experts you can cite; nothing will impact a school more than the quality of its teachers.  And despite myths to the contrary, our public schools are not rife with incompetent teachers hiding behind unions or school codes in order to maintain their “cushy” positions.  Of course there are some bad teachers out there, but they are a minuscule number of the millions of dedicated public educators.  Most teachers work extremely hard to make a difference in the lives of our children.

But it has become more and more standard for school districts to downplay any and all expenses associated with maintaining their staff.  I receive several Google news alerts for a variety of public education issues which provide me with over thirty news stories from around the country every day.  But in the last five years, I have yet to see an article covering a school district, national leader, school board member, or any organization (other than those quoting teachers’ unions during contract negotiations) who will argue that school funding should be increased in order to attract and retain the best possible teachers.  The referendums shown above make absolutely no mention of needing more money for teachers—whether it be to lower class size or to gain a competitive edge when hiring the best teaching candidates—and I can’t remember hearing those in charge of our schools ever advocate for higher teacher salaries.

Instead, it’s become a standard procedure for many administrators and school board members to claim that teachers cost too much, that things like steps on a salary schedule are no longer “sustainable,” or that ”greedy” teachers are bleeding taxpayers dry.  I do understand that resources are not infinite—How many times during contract negotiations did I hear that there were “only so many slices of financial pie”!—but that line of reasoning won’t come up when discussing more funds for school expansion or repair, even when the need for more classrooms isn’t always dire, as is the case in Hinsdale 86 where shifting some students from one school to another is a money-saving option which the district has rejected.  Yet, the attacks about “easy” work schedules and “Cadillac” insurance programs arose every time I fought to improve the working conditions for teachers I knew were doing an amazing job.

The most galling argument I ever heard was during one negotiations when, frustrated by the district’s claims of poverty and refusal to agree to a reasonable salary increase, I suggested that if money were so tight, perhaps the board should seek more funding for our salaries.  The response was that requesting a referendum for salaries would be like “re-financing a mortgage to buy groceries.”  Since teachers are mere transitory expenses, the reasoning went, one should never “waste” a difficult process like promoting unpopular tax increases on raises for them.  Needless to say, my reply (that having the necessary money to eat was significantly more important than saving a percent or two on a mortgage interest rate, thus rendering their analogy idiotic) didn’t go over well.

The most essential element by a wide margin in improving and/or maintaining the quality of public education is who is in front of the classroom.  No matter what study you look at or how many factors are cited as important, all will have quality teaching near the top of the list of crucial characteristics.  Everyone knows this, but it seems we refuse to recognize the relationship between good salaries and good teachers, unlike other professions.  As all you baseball fans know, the White Sox recently traded one of the best pitchers in baseball, Chris Sale, and a key aspect of his value in the trade was everyone agreeing on how “reasonable” his contract was at only $38,000,000 for the next three years.  Yet, when it comes to the people who are responsible for teaching and looking out for our children every day, we become enraged when they earn over $100,000 a year (which would require teaching for 380 years to earn what Mr. Sale—who is a bargain by baseball standards—will earn in three years).  And I believe Chris is worth every penny; I just also happen to believe that teachers deserve a good wage too.

So as we vote this Tuesday on the referendums which are being pursued, we should keep in mind the unspoken reality that any additional money a school system receives at least indirectly might strengthen a district’s faculty.  Hinsdale 86 is an excellent example of how a failure to use referendums can create a needless money crunch when it comes to maintaining a quality staff.  My old district hasn’t passed a referendum since the 1960s, yet has spent tens of millions of dollars on new building:  The district has added many classrooms, field houses, and science labs as well as extensive remodeling projects over the years.  The money for all this was obtained through issuing bonds and spending surplus property tax revenues.  This time, at least, it is going through the appropriate channel of soliciting taxpayer approval before embarking on significant building sprees.  Unfortunately, though, the need for additional classrooms is less clear since much room exists in one of the two schools.  (You can read more about this issue here, here, and here.)  I would vote for this referendum, were I eligible to vote in Hinsdale Township, but it’s hardly a black/white choice.  My rationale would be to support the superior teachers there, not the questionable building.  The district will have major problems if this referendum fails, but the issues which failure would raise are important and should be addressed sooner or later.  Sadly, though, those most likely to feel the pinch for a rejection financially would be the teachers, come the time for a new contract.  (You can find an editorial which rejects this referendum as foolish here in the Chicago Tribune.)

In Center Cass 66, I would strongly encourage fellow residents to vote “Yes” on this tax increase (which I will also pay).  Elementary teachers unfairly earn significantly less than their secondary counterparts, and the relatively small tax increase for repairs should allow Center Cass to compensate teachers more equitably.  Of course, the teachers in the district will have to fight for their fair share, but assuming the referendum is approved, at least they won’t be competing as much with facilities expenses.  (It was also a nice touch that over Spring Break, repairs to one of the schools’ roofs ( at Prairieview Elementary), have been on display for anyone driving by on Plainfield Road, right before the voting.)

One day, perhaps, we will see a school board courageous and far-sighted enough to push a referendum because teachers are cherished and valued more highly than the thrill of construction.  There should be no question as to what is the most important resource in any school district, but we have a long way to go to acknowledge that teachers matter most and should be compensated accordingly.  Approving referendums (even as they are currently constructed) is at least one small, indirect way to show some support for teachers.

For more outlier views on what goes on in the world of public education and ways we can strengthen this institution, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools.

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