By Nona Tepper
Six teachers with more than a decade of experience retired from Forest Park District 91 schools this year, creating financial and organizational opportunities for the district.
"The teachers that retired will all be greatly, greatly missed. They were wonderful teachers and good friends," Superintendent Louis Cavallo said.
The teachers -- two from Forest Park Middle School, two from Garfield Elementary School, and one each from Grant-White Elementary School and Field-Stevenson Intermediate Elementary School -- had a combined 134 years teaching, with the longest spending 35 years in D91 and shortest teaching for 12 years at the district.
Cavallo said only one of their positions will be filled.
"We need less staff because we have less kids. As people retire, we are just not replacing them," Cavallo said. "However, we did open up one new full-time equivalent to create new section of preschool, that's an opportunity for us that we had because now we have an open classroom, too."
The district will add new morning and afternoon sections of preschool next year, expanding its program to address student academic performance, a long waiting list and to attract families to the district.
"Preschool has an enormous impact on academic achievement. Our students that participate in preschool do better overall in school as they progress through, especially through the earlier years," Cavallo said. "Our underserved populations benefit the most from preschool -- low-income, Latino and African-American students. So it certainly fits with our equity imperative as well."
At the beginning of last school year, D91 reported the largest drop in enrollment in at least six years, along with the smallest number of students enrolled in the district during the same time.
Attributing the drop in enrollment to Forest Park's rental housing market and county's declining birth rate, Cavallo said the largest dip was among the younger grades. Twenty fewer students enrolled in kindergarten in 2018-19 compared to the year before, and 19 fewer first-graders enrolled year over year. Three students left the district between kindergarten and first-grade.
"We hope that this also provides another incentive to entice more young families into Forest Park," Cavallo said. "There were lots of benefits to the preschool program, and we had that opportunity with folks leaving that we capitalized."
The district will also realize some financial benefit from the retirements.
"The more veteran teachers we have retire, the higher the salaries that come off the payroll," Cavallo said. "We're not looking to just save a bunch on hiring first-year teachers. If we can hire a great teacher with experience, we're going to do that."
Cavallo noted that the average teacher spends 10 years at District 91 and, excluding those still in their first four "probationary years," instructors spend 15 years at D91. Sixty-five percent of teachers at D91 came from another district.
"We're able to hire teachers with a lot of experience because it's a great place to work," Cavallo said. "The resources that teachers have available to them, as well as the small class sizes and the real community feel that we have here."
Because negotiations continue over a new contract with the Forest Park Teachers Association, Cavallo said he was unsure what the retirement salary dollar savings would be spent on.
"I don't think there's anything earmarked for those funds," Cavallo said.
Contract negotiations between the teachers union and D91 have stretched beyond the school year's end for the first time in at least two decades, and a federal mediator has been asked to intervene—another 20-year first for the district. The teachers contract determines the salary increases and benefits for the approximately 87 members of the teacher's union. The existing contract expires in late August.
Cavallo said he did not anticipate any teachers retiring this coming school year. Normally, he said, teachers give notice four years in advance of their retirement, and approximately two teachers retire every year.
He noted that Bill Milnamow will retire as principal at Betsy Ross Elementary School next year after 20 years of service.