Faced with the prospect of lean financial times, the West Chicago Elementary District 33 school board decided it would be prudent to reduce automatic annual pay increases and lengthen the amount of time it takes for teachers to reach the top of the pay scale.
On Feb. 4, the Elementary Teachers Association of West Chicago responded by calling a strike. There were many issues separating the two sides: teacher evaluations, health care and class sizes among them. But the issue of pay increases was the most contentious issue on the table. The teachers union was up in arms over this proposal - which only shows how out of line their expectations are with reality.
The strike is over now, but we have yet to see the full contract. When it does come out, parents and taxpayers should pay close attention to how teachers are paid. Unfortunately, understanding how teacher pay works is a daunting task, and the process has a language all its own that most outsiders are unaware of.
Almost every teachers union contract has a salary schedule. With this schedule, you can look up a teacher's education level and years of experience and find a corresponding salary figure. Every year the teacher will get a little pay bump as he or she gains experience and moves to another box on the schedule. These are called "step" increases.
Wage negotiations inevitably revolve around changes to these salary schedules. Unions, obviously, would like to have all the numbers on the schedule be higher. When reporting on collective bargaining, well-meaning reporters will toss around pay increase numbers that the union is demanding versus what the employer is willing to offer. Most of the time what they are referring to are changes to the whole salary schedule - every little box that refers to a teacher's education level and experience. What most people don't realize, however, is that teachers actually receive two different kinds of raises. In addition to step increases, the second kind of raise is an "across-the-board" pay raise. If you look at a contract, it will often have a new pay schedule for each year - that's where the "across-the-board" pay hikes are added in.
In West Chicago, the school board wanted to completely overhaul the pay schedule. Up to now those steps have been pretty steep; teachers could expect an annual pay increase of at least 4.5 percent, even if the schedule itself didn't change. The West Chicago school board decided that it can no longer afford such generous annual raises.
So the board called for a whole new pay schedule, with flatter steps of 2.25 percent. The board wanted to do this by stretching out the pay schedule. Up to now it has taken a teacher 12 years to reach the top. The board wants to stretch things out to 24 years. The board is willing to sweeten the pot by adding a 0.75 percent increase, across the board, to every figure on the pay schedule for each year of the contract.
The union offered to go halfway, proposing an 18-year plan with an average step increase of 3 percent. But that would be topped off with across-the-board pay increases of 1.25 percent every year. (That would mean a teacher's pay would go up by 4.25 percent every year.)
If you add up the 0.75 percent across-the-board pay increase and the 2.25 percent annual step increases that the district is offering, that works out to a 3 percent pay hike every year. That's not a bad deal in a stagnant economy where wages have been flat for years. That's especially true when you consider that teachers in the West Chicago district have an average salary of $75,000 a year, a good bit higher than the $63,377 median household income in the village of West Chicago.
That still leaves health care, evaluations and class sizes, but salary really shouldn't have been a huge obstacle to a contract. On this issue, the district's original offer was fairly generous. The question now is: what did the union and the school board agree to?