District 209 teachers received pay raises last week with a new collective bargaining agreement, signed during a press conference at the Proviso Math and Science Academy on Friday.

A teacher starting at Proviso with a Bachelor’s degree will make $37,981 this year, up from $34,950 last year. Those with Master’s degrees will start at $42,072, up from $38,713, while those starting with PhD’s will see their pay increase $3,751 to $46,981.

By the contract’s end in 2008-2009, those with Bachelor’s degrees will start at nearly $42,000, while those with PhD’s will start at over $51,000.

At Proviso’s new Math and Science Academy, teachers with Bachelor’s degrees will make $2,500 more than their counterparts at Proviso East and West, while those with Master’s degrees will make an extra $3,750 and those with PhDs will receive a $5,000 bonus each year.

“I don’t think we have a perfect contract, but we are moving in the right direction,” said District 209 Board of Education President Chris Welch.

His enthusiasm was shared by Mona Johnson, president of the Proviso Teachers Union, who called the contract a “positive step in the collaboration between management and teachers.”

Others board members, however, were not so optimistic. “What we’ve actually done is put the school district in even more of a hole because we can’t afford to pay these salaries,” said board member Charles Flowers.

The depth of the hole the district is in is unclear, but Flowers said the most recent estimates presented by former superintendent Greg Jackson, who was fired by Welch and the board majority in July, showed its operating deficit at $13 million.

That estimate did not take into account the recent budget challenges at the new Proviso Math and Science Academy. In August it was revealed that the district had just over $1 million remaining from the $40 million bond it had set aside for the school despite forecasts in the preceding weeks indicating that about $7 million remained.

District 209 Chief Education Officer Robert Libka said that the district is currently at work crunching the numbers to determine how bad the deficit actually is, but that he believed it to be significantly below Jackson’s estimate.

The charge that Jackson got the numbers wrong struck board member Theresa Kelly as odd since the justification for Jackson’s firing was that, though he had succeeded in addressing the district’s finances, an individual with more of an educational background was needed to step in.

“I thought (Jackson) was the money guy,” she said.

At the conference, Welch evaded questions from reporters regarding the actual cost of the contract to taxpayers, eventually stating that though this contract alone will not create a need for a property tax increase, he cannot guarantee that the district will not need a referendum in the near future.

Welch also fielded questions from reporters regarding the discrepancy in teacher and custodian salaries, which one teacher who did not wish to be named called “a slap in the face.”

He pointed out that, though the listed salary for custodians is about $46,000, they make only 75 percent of this salary in their first year with the district, and only work their way up to full pay after five years. He also said that custodians work year-round, while teachers have the summer months off.

The $46,000 figure Welch named, however, is at the bottom of the custodian’s pay scale. Athletic equipment managers, for example, make over $53,000, which, even prorated at 75 percent, is significantly more than starting teachers.

After five years with the district, a teacher with a Bachelor’s degree would be making $40,503, and one with a PhD. would make about $51,000.

The contract also offers teachers salary increases of one-half percent in years that the district’s average ACT or Prairie State Examination scores improve or its Terra Nova tests, which are administered to each grade once per year to measure progress, reflect an improvement of one full grade level or greater.

Under the new contract, teachers will pay the first 10 percent of insurance premiums, with the district picking up the remaining 90 percent as long as the district’s payment does not exceed 110 percent of its payment the previous contract year. Any premiums beyond that will be deducted from the payroll.

The Chris Welch show?

Kelly also questioned why she and other board members were not notified of Friday’s press conference until the morning of the event while Welch spent the majority of the conference on the microphone and in front of the cameras.

Flowers agreed that a press conference to announce the contract was unnecessary. “This is a publicity stunt to promote Chris Welch,” said Flowers of the conference, which included photographers from District 209’s public relations firm and Welch campaign contributor Danielle Ashley Advertising.

Welch has been circulating petitions to run against Karen Yarbrough for 7th District State Representative in the March primaries.

Asked why the conference was needed, Welch said “this is great news, and we would scream it from the rooftops if we could.”

Welch, who addressed the crowd of about 25 three times during the conference despite admittedly playing no role in the negotiation process, denied that the event centered around him and said that the conference was “absolutely separate” from his state rep campaign.

Libka, who did participate in the negotiations, addressed the audience only once and said the new contract would not have been possible without “the board president’s hard work.”

Welch said that his role in the press conference was appropriate, as “I am the duly elected school board president.” When asked to respond to the controversy surrounding the high custodian pay last month, however, Welch argued that he was being singled out, stating that “I am only one of seven members of the board of education.”