Taxpayers deserve say in the teachers’ union contracts they pay for

Mailee Smith

Senior Director of Labor Policy and Staff Attorney

Mailee Smith
March 21, 2017

Taxpayers deserve say in the teachers’ union contracts they pay for

Negotiations between government-worker unions and governing bodies are conducted behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny. And yet taxpayers are required to pay for whatever extravagant benefits the unions obtain. Recently a bill in the General Assembly would have brought more transparency – and accountability – to the process, but it failed to make it out of committee.

Government-worker contracts cost taxpayers billions of dollars, so it only makes sense that taxpayers should be allowed to see those contracts before they are ratified.

But that’s not how things work in Illinois.

Instead, negotiations between governing bodies and government-worker unions happen behind closed doors and often harm taxpayers, who are on the hook for paying for whatever deal comes out of these negotiations.

For example, in November 2016 a school board in Alton, Ill., agreed to eliminate teacher contributions to health insurance from its contract offer. The union rejected the school board’s previous offer that teachers pay just $10 a month toward their single health insurance premiums. Taxpayers should have had an opportunity to register criticism before being burdened with the contract.

Similarly, in April 2016 Palatine-area Community Consolidated School District 15 voted to saddle taxpayers with a 10-year teacher contract the taxpayers never got to review or approve. Public criticism for the unprecedented contract followed, but there was nothing taxpayers could do. They were stuck with the contract.

Secrecy in contract negotiations could be prevented, but the General Assembly has failed to act on proposed bills. House Bill 447, a bill sponsored this year by state Reps. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, and Tom Morrison, R-Palatine, would have protected taxpayers from the backroom dealings pervasive in contract negotiations between school districts and teachers’ unions.

HB 447 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.

But the bill failed. Seventeen Democrat committee members, listed below, voted to keep the bill from even making it out of committee. In the meantime, taxpayers remain unprotected from contract deals made behind closed doors.

The impact HB 447 would have is evident. Alton and Palatine 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 June 2016, the school district in Dixon, Ill., drew media scorn for failing to release a tentative teacher contract before voting on it. Despite calls by local media to release the tentative agreement before the school board voted, the school district refused.

In March 2016, 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 the local teachers union, but the district refused to release the document until after the teachers and school board voted on it.

HB 447 would have ensured 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 forced to pay for it.

Below are the representatives who voted “nay” to passing HB 447 out of committee:

Jamie M. Andrade Jr., D-Chicago

Daniel V. Beiser, D-Alton

Kelly M. Burke, D- Oak Lawn

Kelly M. Cassidy, D-Chicago

Melissa Conyears-Ervin, D-Chicago

John C. D’Amico, D-Chicago

Elizabeth Hernandez, D-Cicero

Jay Hoffman, D-Belleville

Frances A. Hurley, D-Chicago

Robert Martwick, D-Chicago

Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan

Brandon W. Phelps, D-Harrisburg

Silvana Tabares, D-Chicago

Lawrence Walsh, Jr., D-Joliet

Emanuel Chris Welch, D-Westchester

Ann M. Williams, D-Chicago

Michael J. Zalewski, D-Riverside

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