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The Facts Behind District 112 Contract Negotiations

A skeptical reader tackles everything about the strained negotiations between Highland Park's elementary and middle school teachers and the school board, from property taxes to salary increases.

The Facts Behind District 112 Contract Negotiations

I would like to spend some time here listing facts regarding the current District 112 contract negotiations and other issues in the district.

First, some editorial: I do not trust any of the numbers being presented by the district or the union in public statements. I know it is usual practice for both sides in this type of situation to spin things, but I still find it frustrating. What is presented is probably accurate, but not the whole story. This is a prime example of the old adage, “You can make the numbers sing any way you want.”

Note that you can do this without actually lying. 

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Taxes: There is a lot of comment in public and the Patch about property taxes.  Everyone should know that whatever happens, it will not impact your taxes.  Since the tax cap was imposed all districts, except in special situations, raise taxes as much as the law allows. The amount collected will be the increased by the inflation rate plus an added amount based on new construction. We are all aware that there has been very little new construction in the recent past and no one is forecasting a huge increase. The new building that is proposed for the area next to the Highland Park Theatre will have tax incentives to help fund the building. This will not provide revenue to the schools for at least a decade. The increases in the past from the building at Ft. Sheridan, the 600-some condos built in the past 20 years, and the huge number of tear-downs are not going to be duplicated. Therefore, we are left with the rate of inflation.

Slices of the pie: If the amount of tax revenue is known and predictable, then there is a fixed pie for all expenses to be drawn from. The more that we pay one group, the less money is available for other uses. I do not make a judgment on what the proper spending proportions should be, because I do not have enough information to make a reasoned opinion.  

Average salary increases: The salary of the average existing teacher can go up a certain percentage but the aggregate average salary will not go up by that amount. This is due to the retirement of long-term and therefore higher-paid teachers that are replaced by new teachers at the starting salary. We need to make sure that we know which number we are talking about.

Things that will not go away: 

  • Tenure – It does not matter whether you like it or not; it is here to stay.  Please stop wasting space complaining about it.
  • Unions – District 112 has a union, as does almost every other district in the state.  There is no incentive for getting rid of it and they can provide significant value in the management of a district.  While District 113 (Deerfield and Highland Park high schools) does not have a union, the district has found it useful to meet with teachers that help represent the teachers’ needs that the district might not be aware of otherwise.  The union is not going away, deal with it.  

Consolidation: There has been much discussion about the consolidation of schools as a way to save money. It is true that if a school has many more students at a given grade level, statistically you will end up with fewer sections and therefore fewer teachers. Since we have actual data, I have been very surprised that the district has not told us how much would be saved. I suspect this is because it would save far less money than has been implied.

There are huge ramifications to consolidation.

First, we currently have about the right number of classrooms. To close down a school you would need to build new schools or to double the size of an existing campus. This costs money.

Second, we like our neighborhood schools. Even if you do not have kids in the school, having it near your house impacts your property values. This is the political buzz saw that we ran into in the 90’s when this last came up.  I am not saying that we should not do it, but it will be tough.  

Third, fewer and bigger schools will require  much more busing.  This costs money.  State law was and may still require the district to provide free busing to students that are more than 1.5 miles from school.  Kids will also be spending more time on the bus. This also applies if you group by grade level.

Fourth, you never save as much money on staff as you think.  We do have one larger elementary school and can make estimates based on that.  We can also look at other districts and get the numbers.  There is actual information available, why hasn’t the district done and presented the analysis?  

Fifth, there can be a case made for the superiority of a 300-person school vs. a 600-person school.  A smaller, more intimate school might be better.  You can also make the case as to why the larger school might be better.  Let’s do that analysis, not guess.  

In their comments, I would encourage people to add facts to this list and I hope that people fact-check me. Let’s get as close as possible to a common set of facts that can be used as a springboard for intelligent discussion.  The district has a lot to deal with in the next several years.  We have the current possible strike.  The issue here is not just the possible strike, but the lack of trust that the parties have for each other.  Trust is important to have an effective district.  We have the on-going and huge financial problems that have been created by mistakes made over the years.  Lastly, we have an old and tired asset base (schools) and infrastructure needing to be replaced or updated. 

This will require a referendum. For a referendum to succeed, trust must be restored.  

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