A long time ago, early in my career as an editor, perhaps I was a little naive.
So, when speaking to a group of school administrators, I caused some rolling eyeballs, maybe even mouths agape when I suggested that teacher contract negotiations ought to be held in public.
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True, it would be unprecedented. No other employee group has to conduct its business in such a public manner about something so personal. But the truth of the matter is it all comes out eventually, once the contract is approved. And it's probably a fair assumption that if teachers ended up with 2 percent raises, the school district started with a lower offer and the teachers union asked for more. Yes, sometimes benefits, class sizes and other issues can become sticking points. And as is always pointed out to us in the stories we write on contract negotiations -- by both sides -- their main interest is in doing what's best for our children. But they're always mum on the details everyone wants to know.
I was reminded of all this the other day when word came into the newsroom that 11 months of negotiations between teachers at West Chicago's Community High School and the District 94 school board had reached an impasse. Teachers, in fact, had filed their notice of the stalled contract talks with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board.
As we always do on such stories, we asked both sides for details on what the sticking points might be. As is virtually always the case when we ask the question, both sides declined to divulge anything.
But this story took on a wrinkle you may not have seen in prior stories on this topic: The filing of the impasse notice requires both sides to submit their final offers to the labor relations board by the middle of next week. And here's the kicker: If no agreement is reached, those final offers will be posted by Jan. 25 on the state's website at http://www2.illinois.gov/elrb/Pages/FinalOffers.aspx.
There, you'll see the final offers from both sides that resulted in the four-day strike of teachers at Zion-Benton High School, a work stoppage resolved just this past week.
There also are the final proposals from both sides in a labor dispute that fell short of a strike this summer in Cary Elementary District 26. (And for those you quick to paint school boards as blindly passing out raises and teachers greedily bargaining for more, it's worth noting this deal was settled with teachers agreeing to a 3 percent pay cut with pay freezes for the following two years of the contract. Both sides seemed to grasp that the school district faced some serious financial problems.)
These details come at a time when things are at their most volatile, but when teachers are posting notices of an impasse, the next step can be an intent to strike, and we all know the next step after that. It seems a darned good time for the public to have the details needed to form an informed opinion on the matter. That said, I readily acknowledge teacher salaries are a favorite public whipping boy these days, and, based on some of the letters to the editor we receive, plenty of people are unhappy with anything short of pay cuts. In any school district.
This newfound transparency is the product of the education reform bill passed by the state legislature last year. According to Stand for Children, the lobbying group that pushed for its passage, the posting of the final offers
"lets the public understand what the unresolved issues are and the positions taken by each side. This transparency should help encourage good-faith discussions and let the public's views play a role in dispute resolution."
That might be a naive view, too, but is it not better than the alternative?
Because otherwise, when it comes to teacher contract negotiations, the public is pretty much in the dark until a deal is finalized.