If voters in Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 find it in them to approve a property tax hike in the next year or two, the date Dec. 8, 2011 may loom as a significant reason why.

At present, it’s unclear whether anything will come of the RBHS teachers union’s decision on that date to authorize re-opening negotiations on their contract, which expires in 2013.

But the fact that the union is willing to talk about modifying that contract – which has been at the center of voter opposition to any future tax increase – is a huge step in convincing voters that the teachers are serious about partnering with the community to shoulder D208’s financial burden.

It is a far cry from the union’s offer in 2010 to freeze base salary raises if voters approved a tax increase in the spring of 2011. While that would have resulted in teachers giving up some pay, the offer was frowned upon by some voters, who likened the offer to blackmail.

Teachers still want the school district to make the first move in this dance, but walking into negotiations with no strings attached is a much more attractive position, from a taxpayer standpoint, for the union to take.

Whether this new round of negotiations bears fruit remains to be seen. The talks may have little to do with the present contract. But if they do, and if they end up benefiting taxpayers on future contracts, these talks will have been worth it.

This was likely a bitter pill to swallow for the union – especially given some of the rhetoric by commenters who would be happy with busting the union completely – but this action should resonate positively with taxpayers and voters.

While some may view unions themselves as the problem, we have a different view. The union is not the problem. The union serves to protect its members and make sure they are paid and treated fairly, particularly in tough economic times when some might be content with treating employees like chattel.

The problem was that the union has been slow to recognize that the taxpayers, on whom they rely, were hurting badly and looking for public employees to share in bearing that burden.

Now the union can both protect its members and share in getting the district through this rough economic stretch, which has shown little sign of recovering significantly. It’s going to remain a painful time – for everyone.

If contracts with teachers look different in the future – for example, without step raises and base pay raises tied to tax cap laws – that, in the end, will benefit both taxpayers, who won’t feel held up by unrealistic demands, and teachers, who won’t continually be threatened with job cuts.

Such a contract would ensure that both taxpayers and teachers are true partners. If there are those who want to deny teachers fair wages and benefits, they are in a very vocal minority.

Most taxpayers want teachers compensated fairly and for their children to receive a quality education, bolstered by robust curricular and extracurricular offerings. But the district as a whole has to be able to sustain those expenditures for the long term, and that takes real partnership and a real sense of service to the public.