On teacher contracts, Illinois taxpayers left in the dark but stuck with the bill

On teacher contracts, Illinois taxpayers left in the dark but stuck with the bill

Secrecy in contract negotiations is a slap in the face of taxpayers.

When officials propose school spending cuts, the first things on the chopping block are often after-school activities, band instruments or arts programs.

But those line items make up very small portions of a school district’s budget. The real money is in salaries and benefits for employees. This accounts for about two-thirds of a typical district’s budget, according to the Illinois School Board of Education.

Most of a district’s budget is funded by property taxes. And in Illinois, property-tax bills are the second highest in the country. Two-thirds of this tax revenue goes to education and teacher pay. Yet, unlike other states, Illinois taxpayers are left in the dark about the contracts schools negotiate with unions – until after the fact.

One of the most recent examples of this tradition is Morton School District 709 near Peoria. The district announced May 5 that it reached a “tentative” agreement with its teachers union. But it refused to release the document until the union membership and school board voted on it.

No law stopped the Morton district from releasing the contract. In many cases, officials make the excuse that they are working on final language, so there is no finished contract to release. That reasoning is questionable. When both sides vote on an agreement, it is certainly a final product, not a tentative one.

Whatever the reason, this secrecy is a slap in the face of taxpayers. In Morton, the school portion of the annual property-tax bill is nearly $3,000 for a median-value house – not a minor expense.

In three districts examined – Algonquin-based Community Unit School District 300, Naperville Community Unit School District 203 and Champaign Community Unit School District 4 – spending for employee compensation made up more than 70 percent of each district’s budget.

By tradition, how this spending is decided is shrouded in secrecy.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. This year, state Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, reintroduced a bill that would require public entities to post “tentative” contracts online for 14 days, and that a public hearing be held, before a contract could be approved. In 2013, a committee voted 14-3 against the bill. This year, lawmakers failed to even take a vote on this bill, which would provide very basic and badly needed transparency for taxpayers.

Other states require much more openness. In Colorado, 70 percent of voters approved a proposition last November mandating school districts negotiate with teachers unions in public, something a few districts were already doing. In Idaho, all governing bodies – school districts, cities, counties, fire districts, etc. – are required to open the doors to negotiations. This means taxpayers can walk in and watch their government negotiate on their behalf.

The contrast with Illinois is striking. In other states, taxpayers can witness deals being made. Here, they can’t even read the deal until after it takes effect. Then they’re stuck with the consequences, such as end-of-career, pension-increasing salary spikes for teachers.

Illinois’ taxpayers have seen what happens when they’re left outside the room – high property taxes being the most obvious result. It’s up to lawmakers to make sure taxpayers are allowed inside. That would only be fair to the folks paying the bills.


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