Director of Labor Policy
“Grayslake” sounds like a great place for a mystery. It could be the name of a mansion overlooking a foggy moor upon which a wealthy young heiress was found dead of arsenic poisoning among half a dozen acquaintances, all with serious grudges.
But while murder mysteries might be fun reads, unfortunately Grayslake is the scene of a teacher contract mystery that’s neither fun nor affordable.
To its credit, Grayslake District 46 has been relatively frugal. According to the State Board of Education, spending per pupil is below the state average within the district, and since there is little relation between spending in schools and academic performance, it should come as no surprise that standardized test scores are above state averages. But Grayslake is not without its problems: as recently as the 2010-11 school year the district’s budget was still in deficit. More frugality is in order.
For the Lake County Federation of Teachers, or LCFT, frugality is a fighting word. The union called a three-day strike last week, during which the union issued, then quickly pulled back, a call for tax increases in the district. The strike has ended and there is a tentative contract in place. But the terms of the contract remain a mystery. The district has said it will not announce the terms until after the union and the school board have ratified the contract. This is common practice in school district negotiations, but it’s a practice that needs to change.
Instead of a whodunit, taxpayers and parents in District 46 have a whogotwhat with few clues and a lot riding on the outcome. All we have is the last best offers that the two sides filed with the state before the strike. The district wanted to lock the current salary schedule in place, and also wanted to hold off on what are called “lane changes” – pay increases that teachers receive for taking additional college courses or advanced educational degrees. Teachers would still receive their regular “step” increases as they gained seniority. The board also wanted to reduce the extent to which teacher salaries are “spiked” at the end of their career – pay boosts made in the final few years of employment increase how much teachers receive in their pensions. The union wanted to keep all the step and lane increases that teachers had been receiving, and then add a 3 percent, across-the-board pay increase for each of the two years of their contract.
During the 2010-11 school year, the district had a deficit of just more than $750,000. The union estimated that its own proposals would cost around $500,000 per year, meaning that the district’s budget deficit would increase by two-thirds if the union got its way. Of course the union has its own idea for how it could deal with the deficit. On its website the morning the strike was called, LCFT posted a letter to teachers (now removed) arguing that the Grayslake Board of Education had “chosen to levy less than their ability and are suggesting further cuts, showing disregard for the education of the children of Grayslake. This BOE is making this stand for no reason other than tax ideology.”
The union was hoping to maneuver the district into a position where it would be forced to raise taxes. Depending on what is in the tentative contract, the union may still get its way. The fact is, however, that if the board ratifies it, residents won’t see the details of the contract beforehand. This would be extremely unfortunate for the district’s residents: school taxes are levied to provide education, not to satisfy union officials’ demands. The district had been running relatively well on the resources it already had. There is little reason to expect that additional money by itself would improve education in Grayslake.
So who got what? That’s the question that parents and taxpayers deserve to know; before the district ratifies the contract and commits itself, not after. A board that is looking to provide a quality education at a reasonable cost to taxpayers shouldn’t be afraid to make its contracts public before it signs them. And if the board won’t, state law should require it to. This isn’t supposed to be a mystery.