In a departure from past practices, none of the seven elected Palatine Township Elementary District 15 school board members served on the team that negotiated the unprecedented 10-year teachers' contract they unanimously approved in April.
Board members nearly always participate in negotiating teacher contracts, according to legal and education experts, though there is no requirement that they do so.
Among 21 suburban school districts that signed new agreements, extended existing contracts or are in negotiations this year, only District 15 and Naperville Unit District 203 reported no board members on the negotiating team.
Asked why, District 15 Board President Peggy Babcock refused to comment. Most other members did not return calls.
One who did, Dave Gurion, was appointed to the board in the midst of negotiations. Another who responded, Zubair Khan, said he thought board members were on the team. When told there weren't, he was unconcerned.
"I wasn't relying on one or two board members anyway for something this important," Khan said. "That's why I sat down with administrators prior to voting on anything and went through all the major terms of the contract."
Superintendent Scott Thompson said the board was updated regularly during the six months of talks, and had plenty of input. He did not directly say who decided to keep board members off the team or why.
"Rather than put one or two board members on the bargaining team, it was decided to keep all of them engaged through ongoing discussion and input during our six months of negotiations," Thompson said. "They were regularly updated by district administrators, and played an active role in providing direction, asking questions and offering guidance."
Labor attorneys say it's uncommon for collective bargaining to occur without any elected officials at the table.
"The contract is between the union and the board, so we want to make sure the board is involved and knows what the issues are that are coming up in negotiations," said Barney Mundorf, a downstate attorney who has about 50 school districts as clients and is a contributing writer for the Illinois Association of School Boards on collective bargaining trends and tactics.
Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a government finance research group in Chicago, said it's the duty of elected board members to be "active participants" in collective bargaining.
"It is essential that the taxpayers have an elected voice in negotiating contracts that they will be paying for over many years," he said.
The new contract includes raises averaging 3.4 percent a year and retirement incentives that increase longtime employees' salaries by 26.2 percent over four years.
Mundorf said in his 17 years negotiating 10 to 12 teachers' contracts a year, only one or two were done without board members on the teams.
District 15 had Thompson, Chief School Business Official Mike Adamczyk and Lisa Nuss, executive director of personnel and human services, on its team. Nuss formerly was the union president and led negotiations for the teachers four years ago.
Three teachers made up the union negotiating team.
In the last negotiations, in 2012, three now-former school board members -- Tim Millar, Scott Herr and Rich Bokor -- were on the negotiating team.
Millar, the former board president, criticized the current board's lack of direct involvement in negotiations.
"It is important to get the perspectives of the board members with their different backgrounds," he said. "The board should be setting the parameters."
The current District 15 board members also did not see the full contract before approving it, but based their vote on a three-page contract summary and information they got from district administrators.
Naperville District 203, which finalized a new three-year contract on Monday, hasn't had board members on its negotiating teams for more than a decade, after a contentious session in 2005 nearly resulted in a strike.
Naperville Superintendent Dan Bridges said the board sets financial parameters and the district team, made up mostly of administrators and an attorney, works with the union to sculpt a contract within those boundaries.
The Illinois Association of School Boards and the Illinois Association of School Administrators don't have guidelines for board member participation in collective bargaining. However, IASA Executive Director Brent Clark said the absence of board members from District 15's negotiating team is not unique.
Union officials said there are no restrictions on the makeup of a negotiating team, but most prefer to have members directly involved.
"It can be a problem when there are no board members at the table who can sign off on agreements," said Kenzo Shibata, a spokesman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers. "In Waukegan, for example, talks moved very slowly through a monthlong strike, and much of that can be attributed to the fact the district negotiating team had to relay table agreements to board members to move talks forward."
In a report for the Council of School Attorneys, Oregon labor attorney Nancy Hungerford wrote that it's "relatively common" for school board members to participate in contract talks, but some boards might choose to forgo it if they use a hired negotiator for fear the member's presence "can erode the authority" of the negotiator.
Hungerford added it's often hard to find board members who can fully devote themselves to negotiations.
"If they don't show up regularly, that can look worse than if they weren't on the negotiating team in the first place," Hungerford said by phone. "Participation of board members certainly conveys the idea that the board is interested in devoting time to the issues that are concerning to employees."
• Daily Herald Staff Writer Marie Wilson contributed to this report.