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updated: 2/8/2012 1:49 PM

Butler District 53 contract talks at standstill

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Teacher contract talks remain at a standstill in Oak Brook's Butler Elementary District 53 with both sides apparently dug in for what could be a long fight over salaries.

After 24 bargaining sessions in the past year, including three meetings with a federal mediator, the teachers and school board have agreed on 26 of 27 open issues for a proposed three-year pact for the high-achieving district's 48 teachers.

But with no agreement in sight on compensation, the school board declared an impasse on Jan. 12 and the two sides have not returned to the bargaining table since.

"It's important the two groups get back together," union President Andrew Griffith said. "If we sit down face-to-face, we can get this resolved. We can't do it by phone or by email or through the newspapers."

But school board President Alan Hanzlik said the board already has made its best offer and "there isn't any additional room in our compensation package."

"The ball's in their court," Hanzlik said. "We're more than happy to sit down and hear what the teachers have to say, but only if they bring something substantial to the table."

The school board is offering salary increases of 2.3 percent in the first year, 2.8 percent in the second and 3.3 percent in the third.

The union wants 3.3 percent raises in the first year and 3.8 percent raises in each of the next two.

Hanzlik said pay for teachers in the Oak Brook Education Association already is in "the top one-tenth of 1 percent of 3,200 elementary and middle schools in the state."

He said average teacher pay in District 53 increased 4.3 percent last year after going up 6.9 percent in each of the five previous years.

"We're not out to be the bad guys," he said, "but that kind of growth is unsustainable."

The school board says the average District 53 teacher is paid $83,834 a year for 181 days of work and receives $15,124 in benefits, bringing the annual compensation package to $98,958. The most senior teachers at the top of the scale receive annual pay of $99,721 and total yearly compensation packages of $114,845 with benefits, officials said.

Griffith, meanwhile, said the difference in the two offers comes down to a total of $160,000 during the three years of the proposed contract. That, he said, is about $45 per paycheck (teachers are paid 24 times a year) before taxes for each teacher. He said the district's average salary figures are misleading because 90 percent of the teachers have at least a master's degree and 58 percent of the union's members receive less than the $83,834 average.

The numbers also are inflated, he said, because seven teachers are on a retirement track in which they receive higher-than-average raises to boost their pensions.

The union is emphasizing that the contract includes so-called step pay increases that are common throughout the state.

"The schedule is organized to reward both experience and education beyond a bachelor's degree," Griffith said in a written statement. "After each year of service, the teachers move one 'step' on the salary schedule. That step has a built-in salary increase determined by an index intended to provide incremental raises beyond the cost of living."

Unlike many schools, he said, District 53's step schedule stops after 20 years, meaning a teacher with 35 years experience is paid roughly the same as one with 20. More than 20 percent of district teachers are frozen at that step, he said.

Griffith said it's important the community understand the way the district's salary schedule works.

"It is unique and unlike the private sector, where employees have access to bonuses, stock options and other incentives," he said.

If the impasse remains, the school board could impose its final offer on the union, but Hanzlik said officials are reluctant to do that.

He said the board is willing to come back to the table, but only if the union is willing to make "significant" concessions, such as abandoning the end-of-career 6 percent pay increases that artificially boost pensions.

Griffith said teachers are eager to start talking again but are unwilling to reopen contractual issues that already have been settled.

"We're willing to sit down any time to get this worked out," he said.

Griffith said union members, who have been working under the terms of their expired contract since Sept. 1, have not discussed the possibility of a strike.

Instead, he said, they continue to focus on their jobs in a district that recently received the School Search 2011 Bright A+ Award, ranking it among the top 5 percent of schools in the state.

"Research has proved that capturing a child's mind can only be accomplished after first creating an environment where children feel free to take educational risks," he said in a statement. "It is teachers who set the tone and make lifelong learning a reality."

The district serves 435 students at Brook Forest Elementary and Butler Junior High.

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