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By Nona Tepper
Contract negotiations between the Forest Park Teachers Association (FPTA) and District 91 have now stretched beyond the school year's end for the first time in at least two decades.
After eight sessions and about 25 hours of negotiating, both sides have asked a federal mediator to intervene, also for the first time in at least 20 years. The teachers contract determines the salary increases and benefits for the approximately 87 members of the teacher's union.
"If you feel strongly about the education that your children or future children will receive, or you want to make sure that your tax dollars are being spent to make sure that our staff is adequately compensated and we attract those high-quality professionals, communicate that to the district," said Susan Bogdan, co-president of the teacher's association and a fifth-grade teacher at Field-Stevenson Intermediate Elementary School. "I think the district needs to hear that."
At the center of the debate is D91's policy of keeping its education fund stocked with at least 12 months of financial reserves, teachers allege. The education fund pays for day-to-day expenses like district employee salaries and benefits.
School board President Kyra Tyler and board member Mary Win Connor are representing the district in negotiations, along with the school district attorneys, Assistant Superintendent Ed Brophy and Superintendent Louis Cavallo.
In a statement, the D91 board said it "is committed to collaboratively negotiating with the FPTA to reach a fair and reasonable contract, and will continue to do so until an agreement is reached."
Last fiscal year, the education fund ran a $9,000 deficit, although it still held more than $15.8 million in cash reserves, according to its 2018 audit. Two months after the end of that fiscal year, the D91 board updated its policy of keeping its education fund flush 12-months in advance.
At a board meeting on June 13, Brophy said D91 expected to end its fiscal year with 12.5 months of cash reserves in its education fund. As of May 31, the education fund held approximately $15.2 million in cash reserves.
"This is not a policy that is required by the state board; it's not something that anyone is telling them that they need to do. It is a collective decision that they want to keep that reserve," Bogdan said. "We all want to remain fiscally responsible. We are by no means asking them to deplete it -- to go from 12 months to zero -- because we understand the hard work that they have done for the village and the community to retain that fiscal responsibility. But we don't believe that 12 months is necessary."
Nicole White, co-president of the Forest Park Teachers Association and a fourth-grade teacher at Field-Stevenson, said the D91 policy was approved without the input of teachers. Teachers believe such a policy places a limit on what they can be paid.
"We couldn't implement a union or association policy saying we have to get this much money and have that be upheld at the bargaining table," White said.
White said that D91 and the teachers association have been negotiating the terms of their new contract since January. Both the D91 board of education and teachers union will have to approve the new agreement.
If the teachers union and district fail to agree on a new contract before the current agreement expires on Aug. 19, teachers will continue to work under the terms of the old contract.
Bogdan said that both the district and teachers union agree that a salary increase is necessary but called disagreements over how much the increase should be a "sticking point." She declined to specify exactly what increase the union is seeking.
After the last negotiating session on May 28, the district and union jointly called the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service for a mediator to assist with contract negotiations.
The mediator will help determine how to compare the district to others in the state. Teachers are comparing their salary to instructors with similar education levels and are looking at state averages for teacher pay.
In 2018, the average D91 teacher salary was $62,000, below the state average of $65,700, according to the Illinois School Report Card.
"More 70 percent of our teachers have master's degrees or higher and that's very special for a district this small," White added.
Not having a teachers contract makes it tricky for administrators to fill open positions in their buildings, since the district does not have an accurate salary and benefits package it can share with applicants for the next school year, Bogdan said.
"What we're hearing is that administrators go through the process of interviewing several candidates, identify the first person that they think would be a good fit and we're hearing that often -- not every time -- but there are times when candidates will find out how much they're making and unfortunately turn us down because they can go somewhere else and make more money," Bogdan said. "That's one of the driving forces behind our efforts with salary, because we want to be able to capture that first choice."
She said a "handful" of staff are not returning to D91 this year because they've found teaching positions elsewhere that offer higher pay.
At the board of education meeting on June 13, teacher Vanessa Reyes said she left her position as an English language learner instructor at Betsy Ross Elementary School this year because "the pay hasn't been enough for me to pay my bills and live well."
Reyes said that, when she came to D91 seven years ago, she took a 50 percent pay cut from her former position at Chicago Public Schools (CPS).
"I believed that I could further my career and I could grow in the community I was living in," she said.
Reyes said her D91 salary still hasn't caught up to what she was making at CPS.
"I'm very sorry to have to leave," Reyes said. "I'm moving to a community that's close by where I work, and where I can be compensated better for my work, and I hope that's not a trend that happens with the teachers here, especially with equity. I would like to see this district grow and for me not to be the only other [Latinx] person in the school."
Reyes won D91's 2016 Crystal Apple Award and offered weekly adult ESL classes for students' family members.
In addition to helping to retain staff members like Reyes, White said offering a higher salaries would attract teachers capable of supporting D91's educational goals.
"If you have your first choice, you're getting the teacher that is the most well prepared, the most learned, the most able to work with students of all needs to achieve what our district is setting forth for scores," White said. "Those goals that we dove in our strategic plan for test achievement are only going to be possible with a capable and talented faculty."
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