For many Americans, a pay increase isn’t automatic. The anniversary of their hiring, a strong performance on the job, and steady growth within the company don’t necessarily provide a guarantee that their next paycheck will be a little bigger. We’d all like to make more money, but that doesn’t mean we will.

Teachers in Proviso Township high schools are negotiating what will likely be a one-year contract extension for union members. It’s an incredibly difficult climate in which they’re having these conversations. Within the district, student performance continues to fall off and money has become so tight that administrators are touting cost-saving measures such as turning off the lights when they leave a room. (We’re not kidding.) The larger picture includes a nationwide recession. People are earning less money or getting laid off. Their homes have lost value. Stock portfolios are way down. Many of us just don’t have it to spend.

The deal that union members have approved includes a 3.5 percent salary increase. It’s not an enormous raise, but in the context of scrutinizing the utility bill to see who is playing with the thermostat or leaving the lights on, it’s money the district doesn’t have. That taxpayers are less able to afford it further begs whether it’s appropriate.

The union’s proposal also makes a number of concessions. Bonuses have been scrapped and an annual stipend paid to teachers at the math and science academy would be sacrificed. Teachers at the magnet school are understandably upset with this would-be arrangement because the net effect is a pay cut. That’s right. At the only school in which the majority of students actually do grade-level work, teachers would see their paychecks shrink by several thousand dollars.

Perhaps most importantly, students at the school would spend fewer days in the classroom as a result of the contract.

For the community and the school board, there is something other than money to consider. Proviso Math and Science Academy just graduated its inaugural class and the occasion was hailed as a watershed moment for the district. This school represents an opportunity that District 209 can’t otherwise provide, and the long-term hope is that families who might send their kids to private school return to public education. Setting aside the debate on whether this plan has merit, the academy, at the very least, must be afforded those qualities that make it standout from Proviso East and Proviso West. Cutting instructional time for the sake of salaries elsewhere in the district is the first step on a slope to mediocrity.

Parents, school board members and teachers need to decide what their priorities are, and then advocate appropriately. If the magnet school is to be stripped of what makes it unique, we might as well turn the lights off for good.