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posted: 4/18/2016 6:50 PM

Editorial: District 15 has much to prove on troubling 10-year teacher contract

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  • Palatine Elementary District 15 and its teachers have reached agreement on a 10-year contract.

      Palatine Elementary District 15 and its teachers have reached agreement on a 10-year contract.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

 

The next time the Palatine Elementary District 15 school board and its teachers will negotiate a new contract will be sometime around 2026, thanks to a new pact approved by the two sides last week.

The math is pretty easy to do -- that's 10 years and that may be too long.

The precedent of a 10-year public employee contract is troubling, if for nothing else than that it's locked into the uncertainty of the future. A decade is a long time and this contract will tie the hands of several future school boards during a period when there are likely to be more shifting circumstances, variables and unknowns than anyone can possibly address. Who, for instance, would have thought the state would be without a budget for 10 months and counting?

District 15's plan may have been well intended. It is 2.5 times longer than the district's previous four-year pact with teachers, and that provides some benefits, including building in a decade's worth of reassurance for teachers and stability for the district that will aid in planning long-term budgets.

And, that stability minimizes any potential disruption caused by contract negotiations in the near term. Any community that has been through a teachers strike knows what a problem that can be. Walkouts halt the learning process for children, cause daycare problems for working families and can spawn plenty of ill will among everyone involved.

"It also avoids protracted negotiations and legal costs multiple times in the next 10 years if the contracts were shorter in length," Superintendent Scott Thompson said in a memo to the school board in March.

However, that may not be enough to offset concerns taxpayers should have, including concerns about what they don't see.

The district has released only scant details about this deal, and that certainly raises alarm bells. District officials have said it calls for increased workload for art, music and physical education teachers, and includes incentives for teachers to retire up to four years early. Most teachers will receive annual pay increases averaging about 2.5 percent per year for the first four years and about 4 percent annually for the last six years, including steps.

But that's all we know. So far, the district has refused to release the entire agreement, saying officials are still tweaking the details. How can that be? It was ratified by the union and approved by the school board in an open meeting. If District 15 expects its constituents to accept this deal, it has a long way to go - and a deep responsibility - to show how and why it is beneficial.

All this reinforces the need for legislation filed four years ago -- but stalled in committee -- by Republican state Rep. Jeanne Ives of Wheaton that would give the public time to review public employee contracts and contracts of highly paid public officials before they are approved. Ives' bill requires school boards and other governments to publish the terms of the public employee contract agreement and, in not less than 14 days, hold a public hearing before ratification. Ives said such a law would have helped to prevent some of the problems at College of DuPage. It certainly should be called for if taxpayers are going to swallow a 10-year public employee contract.

To be sure, long-term deals like that in District 15 offer value in stability, but it can come at a heavy cost. Communities, school boards and their employees need to weigh that balance carefully.

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