By Nona Tepper
Forest Park District 91 and the Forest Park Teachers Association (FPTA) have reached a tentative agreement on a new contract after more than six months of negotiations that, toward the end, required the services of a federal mediator.
This year was the first time contract negotiations stretched beyond the end of a school in at least 20 years and was also the first time a federal mediator was asked to intervene in two decades. The teachers' contract determines the salary increases and benefits for the approximately 87 members of the teachers' union.
"We're grateful," said Nicole White, co-president of the Forest Park Teachers Association and a fourth-grade teacher at Field-Stevenson Intermediate Elementary School.
"I think it alleviated a lot of stress that our families may have felt regarding our teachers not having an agreement and our association members feeling anxious about that component, which we normally don't have to think twice about at D91."
Susan Bogdan, co-president of the teacher's association and a fifth-grade teacher at Field-Stevenson, added that a strike was "always a possibility, but that was never our intent," if the union was unable to reach a contract with the district.
She said teachers' first day back is Aug. 20, and that union members will vote then on whether to approve the agreement. If approved, the school board is planning to hold a special meeting at 7 p.m. on Aug. 26 at the District 91 administrative offices, 424 Desplaines Ave., where board members will vote on the contract. That meeting will be open to the public.
"The board and the FPTA reached a tentative agreement this afternoon on the new contract for the union," school board President Kyra Tyler said at the board of education's meeting on August 8.
"We're really happy that this has happened, and we're really looking forward to a great start of school, focusing on our strategic plan and welcoming our kids and our staff back."
Teachers declined to discuss salary increases and other benefits articulated in the new contract, since none of it has yet been approved by the union or D91 board.
At the center of the contract debate was D91's policy of keeping its education fund stocked with at least 12 months of financial reserves -- a policy the board approved in August 2018 with no input from the teachers.
Teachers believed such a policy placed a limit on what they can be paid. The education fund pays for day-to-day expenses like district employee salaries and benefits.
"I think financial issues are on the minds of some of our teachers," White said. "Knowing that we have lost some association members because of pay, we want to do the best to retain the high quality teachers that we have in Forest Park."
Teachers also argued that they were paid less than their counterparts in nearby districts, and that they were paid less than colleagues at other districts with similar educations levels. More than 75 percent of D91 teachers have a master's degree, according to the Illinois School Report Card.
"People might look at the contract and see the percentages and, while hopefully our members are happy, we have to kind of balance that with, on average, what do other districts around us make, what is the national average, what is the state average, so it's all in context," White said. "It's not a free for all, they're not just giving out money hand over fist."
Between the end of this school year and Aug. 8, Bogdan said "several" teachers had resigned, including three from Forest Park Middle School (FPMS). She said positions for a middle school multidisciplinary STEM teacher and music teacher remain unfilled. She didn't believe any other buildings had openings for classroom teachers.
"Until they're able to fill those positions with quality candidates, the administrators will try their best to make the most of the staff they have," White said, adding that FPMS' "pretty wonderful schedule" could allow for teachers currently working there to temporarily fill the open positions until they find full-time staff members.
She said that the terms of the old teachers' contract -- and uncertainty surrounding what would be in the next agreement -- played some part in the teachers' decision to resign, although she didn't believe it was the "main reason why" teachers chose to leave the district.
"It's hard to give everybody everything they want, and we have to look at the group as a collective group and do what's best," White said. "It might not make everybody happy, everyone might not get their wish, but we also look to make sure that it's equitable and fair."