In an emotional vote, Indian Prairie District 204 board members approved new contracts for teachers and administrators by a 4-3 margin.
The two-year deal approved Tuesday night also covers non-bargaining positions such as school nurses and occupational therapists.
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Board members said they struggled with the desire to reward district staff and to keep spending in check in the cash-strapped district.
Voting in favor of the new contracts were Curt Bradshaw, Cathy Piehl, Lori Price and Susan Rasmus. Opposing them were board members Dawn DeSart, Mark Rising and Christine Vickers.
The contracts include pay raises tied to cost of living increases for teachers, 2.13 percent for the 2012 school year and 2.89 percent for 2013-2014. Increases for administrators and non-bargaining staff were 2 percent the first year and 2.5 percent the following year.
At the same time, the contracts include concessions -- all employee groups face the elimination or reduction of retirement health care benefits, while teachers also face the reduction of paid benefits for part-time tenured employees and a freeze on stipends paid for extra duties such as coaching and overseeing clubs. The pay raises will cost the district about $8.5 million during the next two years, while the concessions will save the district about $988,000.
Board members in favor of the contracts said the raises were necessary to keep staff motivated and to keep the district competitive. Rasmus passionately spoke about the value of good teachers making a difference in students' lives. She had a tough time separating from her kids when they became school-aged and even explored home schooling, but she decided on public schools because she heard great things about District 204's teaching staff.
Wanting to see for herself, Rasmus even subbed at different schools, describing herself as a "mystery shopper" of sorts and said she saw firsthand the effectiveness of teachers in the district.
"I think our staff is our greatest asset and I think we have to be very mindful of protecting, nurturing and ensuring that we don't destroy what has long been a positive relationship that in my opinion plays a huge role in this district, in who we are," she said.
Price agreed teachers should receive the raises. "We are accountable to the taxpayers who foot the bill, but we have an even greater responsibility to the success of our students," she said.
Board members opposing the contracts said the district can't afford raises. Rising's voice choked with emotion as he spoke.
"This has nothing to do with not wanting to give the teachers a raise. I so wish we could," he said.
But with the district needing to implement state-mandated curriculum changes, evaluate principals and teachers based in part on student growth, and the likelihood the state will shift the burden of teacher pensions to local school districts, there is too much risk the district will face further financial hardship, Rising said.
"There are just too many unknowns," he said. "If the numbers don't go our way, we don't have many other options of where to come up with this money."
Earlier this year, the district laid off teachers and staff, beside making other cuts to combat an $8.6 million deficit largely created by technology costs related to implementing the new, statewide Common Core curriculum requirements. Those cuts came on top of about $30 million in spending reductions imposed in the past three years through workforce reduction and a host of other measures, from reducing school clubs and sports programs to closing some buildings over the summer to not watering lawns.
"It is disingenuous to tell the students and the families in our district that we are broke, that we need to increase class size, let go of library aides, cut soccer and other programs, increase registration and other fees, and then make this decision to increase salaries," DeSart said. "It is not right."
DeSart and Rising also said they thought teachers would prefer smaller class sizes and fewer staff reductions to the raises.
The contract was a give-and-take with negotiators mindful of the district's financial position, said Val Dranias, teachers union president.
"It's a very fair contract," she said. "We understand there are issues and we've had to make all these cuts, but at the same time we have to give people something. Teachers are dealing with larger classes and doing more with less." T
The teachers union voted 1,061 to 582 on Aug. 31 to approve the contract.
With the pay raises, District 204's salaries remain in the middle of area districts' pay, officials said. Teacher contract negotiations began last October and required a federal mediator to work out a compromise on the concessions. The teacher contract applies to more than 2,000 employees, making up 70 percent of the district's workforce. There are 86 administrators and 132 non-bargaining employees.
District 204 includes parts of Naperville, Aurora, Bolingbrook and Plainfield.