Illinois school districts pass closed-door budgets, expect taxpayers to fork over more money

Illinois school districts pass closed-door budgets, expect taxpayers to fork over more money

Legislation to make union-contract negotiations more transparent has been repeatedly proposed, but lawmakers continue to opt for secrecy at taxpayers’ expense.

As students around the state break for summer, many local school districts are wrapping up new contract negotiations with teacher unions. And with that comes the secrecy that shrouds those negotiations. But that secrecy could be averted by legislation requiring transparent negotiations between school districts and teachers’ unions.

Here’s how the process works now: School districts and teachers’ unions begin negotiating new contracts months before a previous contract expires. These negotiations are not open to the public. Once a tentative agreement has been reached, each side votes. The teachers vote to ratify the contract, and the school board votes to approve the contract. Sometimes school boards release snippets of information about the provisions contained in the contract. But most often, the full contract is not released to the public until after both sides have voted and the contract is a done deal – leaving the public no room to voice concerns during negotiations.

The ill-effects of such backroom dealings were seen in April in Palatine-area Community Consolidated School District 15, where the school board approved an unprecedented 10-year contract without first releasing the agreement to the public. Taxpayers were forced into paying for a long-term contract before they even knew what is in it. The new contract requires them to fund yearly salary increases in each of the next 10 years. But the people paying for these raises haven’t seen meaningful income growth in years: The median income of private-sector workers in the Palatine area did not even grow by a full percentage point between 2009 and 2014.

Now another Illinois school district – this time in Dixon – is drawing media scorn for failing to release a tentative teacher contract before voting on it. The Dixon school district met in special session on June 8, 2015, to vote on a four-year contract. Despite calls by local media to release the tentative agreement before the vote, the school district refused.

Secrecy in contract negotiations could be prevented, but the General Assembly has failed to act on proposed bills. For example, House Bill 4583, a bill sponsored this year by state Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, would have protected taxpayers from the backroom dealings pervasive in contract negotiations between school districts and teachers’ unions.

HB 4583 would require that, once a school board and teachers’ union come to a tentative agreement, that agreement must be posted on the school district’s website for public viewing. Then, at least 14 days after online publication, the school district must hold an open public meeting to discuss ratification of the agreement. The agreement cannot be signed until both the publication and public hearing have taken place, allowing taxpayers time to know about – and weigh in on – the contracts they will be funding. Similar requirements were included in the bill with regard to government-worker unions and other government units.

Ives has introduced a version of the bill four years in a row, but legislators repeatedly killed it in committee before the bill could come up for a vote. In the meantime, taxpayers remain unprotected from contract deals made behind closed doors.

The impact HB 4583 would have is evident. Palatine and Dixon are not anomalies. All over the state, school districts refuse to release contracts until after a school board votes – and, therefore, after the taxpayers can have any input.

In March, East Aurora School District 131 declined to issue details about the agreement it reached with the local teachers’ union, citing an agreement the parties made during negotiations.

In 2015, Bloomington School District 87 struck a three-year contract with its teachers’ union, but would not release the contract until after school board approval. Later that year, school officials in Morton District 709 reached an agreement with its teachers’ union, but the district refused to release the document until after the teachers and school board voted on it.

HB 4583 would ensure union contracts are available for public review before school boards commit taxpayers to funding them.

As Illinois’ economy falters, it’s time for taxpayers to see what is in government-union contracts – before taxpayers are roped into spending money the state simply does not have.

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