Hinsdale teachers' 6% raises pad pensions? Suburbs might watch vote
A contract dispute that threatens to trigger a teachers strike in Hinsdale High School District 86 could have far-reaching effects on similar talks throughout the suburbs, officials on both sides of the debate say.
The stalemate in the yearlong negotiations centers on several common contract issues, but with some twists.
For one, school board members, who say they're looking to hold the line on salaries and benefits, placed an advisory referendum question on the November ballot asking voters if teachers should continue to receive 6 percent annual pay increases during their last four years on the job. In addition to giving teachers more money, critics say, those raises also serve to pad their pensions.
How voters answer the referendum question won't be binding, but officials say it could help set the tone for contract talks beyond just Hinsdale.
The teachers union, meanwhile, says the school board is trying to use these contract negotiations as a springboard to address statewide political and pension issues instead of what's best for Hinsdale.
Last week, the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association filed a 28-day notice to strike, meaning the 377 teachers represented by the union could walk off the job early next month.
Both union and school board officials say they hope it doesn't come to that.
"Strikes are like war," school board President Richard Skoda said. "Nobody wins. And even if one sides thinks it won, it didn't."
District 86 includes students from Hinsdale, Darien, Clarendon Hills, Burr Ridge, Oak Brook, Westmont and Willowbrook who attend Hinsdale Central and Hinsdale South. The teachers serving those students have been working without a new contract since June 30.
The school board is proposing a 4-year deal that would, among other things, create a new salary schedule, increase the teachers' share of health insurance costs and end so-called "pension spiking."
"From a contract negotiation perspective, it's hard to deal with because we're not just talking about the finances of our district," said Mike Palmquist, Hinsdale Central teacher and spokesman for the union. "We're talking about the nature of public pensions.
"That's not what we're debating here," he said. "We're debating how do we get the best teachers in front of our kids for the long term."
Skoda said he also believes the outcome of District 86's contract dispute could affect other districts.
"If we get rid of pension spiking," Skoda said, "if we bring in a spousal (insurance) surcharge, if we get teachers to stop getting 6, 7, 8 percent raises a year and give them one that is 2.8 percent ... that's going to percolate down."
Skoda said it's common for suburban districts to give teachers 6 percent salary increases during each of the four years before they retire. That results in those teachers getting higher annual pension payments.
District 86 is seeking to phase out the end-of-career raises as part of its proposal -- and is asking voters to show their support for that in the November referendum.
"Obviously, you could imagine why the union would not want that on the ballot," Skoda said. "Because you know what the answer to that is going to be."
Palmquist said he disagrees with Skoda's claim that the raises spike pensions. He said the raises are allowed by the state as incentive for longtime teachers to retire so they can be replaced with less experienced and less expensive teachers.
Nevertheless, the union is willing to compromise by reducing the pre-retirement raises to 3 percent for each of four years.
"That's something that they (school board members) care about," Palmquist said. "It's sort of a core issue for them. So in the interest of getting things done and getting back to normal, it was a concession we don't want to make, but we're willing to make."
One issue where the teachers don't want to compromise is a proposed spousal surcharge for insurance.
In addition to having their health insurance premiums increase, the teachers are being asked to pay a $200-a-month surcharge if their spouses have access to health insurance from their work. If a spouse doesn't have other insurance available, the surcharge would be $100 a month.
"That's a huge sticking point for us," Palmquist said. "It's unprecedented in the insurance industry to charge a spouse who cannot get health insurance somewhere else."
Then there's the proposed change to the district's salary schedule.
Right now, the district offers step, or experience, increases based on a 19-step salary scale. The school board wants a new salary schedule with 35 steps -- an idea the union opposes.
"We can see why there's some hesitancy on the part of the teachers," Skoda said. "Because if you have one staircase that gets you to the top of the pyramid in 19 steps and the other gets you there in 35, then, long-term, your yearly increases are not going to be as great."
One-third of the district's teachers are at the top of the pay scale. Right now, they are paid a base salary of about $127,000 a year -- an amount that increases to nearly $130,000 if the new pay scale is adopted.
But other teachers would take longer to reach higher pay under the proposed schedule. Palmquist said that could hamper the district's ability to attract and keep quality teachers.
"District 86's reputation right now is as a top district in the state," Palmquist said. "We have gotten really great candidates because of that reputation. And that reputation is built, in part, on that salary schedule."
Skoda said he doesn't buy the argument that changing the salary scale is going to cost the district talent.
"We're still going to be in the top percentile in Illinois with our salaries," he said. "And we have great kids to teach here."