Taxpayers in Wheeling Elementary District 21 paid $7,702 to cover the salaries of eight educators who spent a Thursday and Friday in April at a union conference in downtown Chicago.
But they also paid $1,952 for the substitutes who filled in for them in their classrooms.
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And they weren't the only ones.
A Daily Herald investigation of nearly 100 suburban school districts in six counties found that taxpayers in 27 districts paid all or some of the costs for substitute teachers or temporary support staff hired to cover for the absent teachers.
"That's been past practice," said Patricia McAndrews-Smith, District 21's assistant superintendent for human resources, on covering substitute costs. "It's like anything else -- it's something we didn't give attention to, so it's something now that will come under review."
In all, 57 school districts from around the suburbs sent 276 employees -- mostly classroom teachers -- to the Illinois Education Association/National Education Association Representative Assembly held April 11 and 12, as allowed in their contracts. Most school districts reporting no absences for union business in April noted that their teachers are members of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, a union that holds its conference in the fall.
For the school districts with IEA members, the combined pay for the days they were away from their jobs for the April conference totaled $200,626. The cost of hiring substitutes amounted to $41,752, yet all but $13,799 of those costs will be reimbursed, according to an analysis of the districts' financial records.
It turns out many school districts have union contracts that require reimbursement to cover the cost of hiring replacements for employees who are out because of union business. However, none require total reimbursement for the employees' salaries, which are significantly more expensive than substitute teachers or temporary workers.
"The agreement between a local and a district for an employee to attend a professional conference is a negotiated agreement with a district, so obviously the district also sees the value of the event," IEA spokesman Charlie McBarron said.
While critics object to tax dollars being spent to fund union business, any school district funding ends with salaries and substitute costs. Unlike at an annual conference held in November for school administrators and school board members, taxpayers don't cover the cost of hotel rooms, meals, parking or mileage at the IEA/NEA conference. Those costs are covered by union dues, McBarron said.
Critics also complain about the timing of the conference, arguing that it should be held at a time of the year when it won't pull teachers out of classrooms.
McBarron said moving the conference to summer would conflict with the national convention. Holding the state conference in the spring allows the union representatives an opportunity to discuss education bills as the legislature is in session and debating those topics, he added.
Contingents attending the conference vary depending on the size of the school district. Larger districts can send more union representatives to the conference.
Indian Prairie Unit District 204 in Naperville and Aurora sent 29 union representatives to the conference, the most of any of the surveyed districts. While taxpayers there covered the two-day combined salaries of $20,057 for the district's entourage, they did not have to pay for the $3,521 cost of the substitute teachers.
Notably, only Carpentersville-based Community Unit District 300 received additional compensation for the loss of staff time. Besides being reimbursed for substitute teachers and temporary administrative staff, the district received $1,766 to cover some of the salaries of the 12 absent employees.
That's not enough for some of the conference's detractors.
"I'd argue the union should cover all the costs," said David From, Illinois state director of Americans for Prosperity, a national tax policy reform organization. "This is an example of taxpayer funds going to subsidize a private organization. The union is constantly trying to take more taxpayer money, and not always in the best interest of the children's education."
McBarron believes the conference benefits more than just the teachers who attend. He said the conference advocates for legislative policies to reduce class sizes, create better classroom conditions and adequately fund schools.
"The benefit to taxpayers and students is the opportunity for teachers to be informed and provide expertise to people who represent them," he said. "The end result is better education policies and better advocacy for students and schools and school districts at the local and state levels."
District 300 board secretary Dave Alessio wasn't surprised to learn the district's negotiated reimbursement policy is a rarity among suburban school districts.
"The district has always been very fiscally conservative and we have to watch every dollar, so we make sure all groups work together to keep the budget balanced," he said. "But knowing the wide variation of school funding in the state, I'm not surprised by anything."
Some school board members believe the cost of covering for employees to handle union business is worth the price of maintaining the peace when it comes time to negotiate the next contract.
"We work together and a few years ago this union took a full, hard salary freeze that saved the district about a million and a half dollars," said Phil Pritzker, a longtime District 21 board member. "I can tell you from a philosophical point of view, based on our relationship with the union, I don't know that it would be something that we would make a whole hullabaloo about."