By Bob Uphues
In a bit of a surprise move, the Brookfield-LaGrange Park School District 95 Board of Education and its teachers' union, Teachers Association of Brookfield (TAB), have agreed on a new five-year contract a full year before its present contract was set to expire.
Reached after just three negotiating sessions over the past month, the new contract includes a flat 3-percent increase in base pay for teachers for each year and tweaks a number of other areas related to compensation and benefits.
"Anytime both sides walk away feeling good you've done right," said Superintendent Mark Kuzniewski at the school board's April 12 meeting where the contract was signed by both board President Michelle Maggos and TAB President Lynda Nadkarni.
Kuzniewski indicated that this latest deal, which runs through June 2023, had the broad support of union members. The five-year contract ratified back in 2014 was not so popular with union members, who accepted that deal by a one-vote margin, according to Kuzniewski.
Nadkarni remarked publicly at the school board meeting that the new contract reflected a sense that both the administration and teachers negotiated as partners committed to similar goals.
"It's so lovely to work in a district where the administrators, the board and the teachers and support staff have the same goal, and that's the students," Nadkarni said. "This was not going to be a negotiation in what you'd typically think of as a negotiation. This is a partnership."
One primary reason for opening negotiations on a new deal so soon was the impending major construction projects that will begin this spring at both of the district's schools.
The $35 million effort includes the construction of new gymnasiums at both Brook Park and S.E. Gross schools. In addition, the project at Brook Park calls for the construction of a new classroom wing that will allow District 95 to offer full-day kindergarten.
Kuzniewski said he didn't want to be negotiating a new teacher contract in an environment where teachers were frustrated by working conditions due to construction.
"It's going to be tricky for staff and it's going to frustrate people at times," Kuzniewski said. "There will be a lot of moving of classrooms, sharing classrooms, teachers who will be working from carts.
"I didn't want to go into negotiations with people frustrated with things that were beyond our control."
The school district and union agreed to eliminate step raises back in 2010, and based new raises on the consumer price index (CPI), which varies from year to year. Teachers were guaranteed a minimum and maximum raise based on that number.
The new contract forgoes the CPI in favor of an across-the-board 3-percent base pay increase annually, a strategy intended to head off possible increases in CPI above 3 percent.
"We're in a different place economically as a country, and should the CPI go to 3.5 percent or higher, the district will benefit from this,' Kuzniewski said. "To get locked in for five years we felt was a benefit."
The base salary for a first-year teacher in 2018-19 will make $43,512, while the base salary for a new teacher with a master's degree and 30 credit hours of additional classwork will be $50,084.
The new deal also tweaks language related to teacher retirement incentives. Teachers with more than 10 years of service in District 95 will earn $1,250 per year for each year of employment, with a cap at $25,000 as a retirement bonus. Previously the cap was $20,000.
Teachers can also qualify for 5 percent raises in each of their two final years prior to retiring, as long as they announce their retirements the first year they become eligible without the district incurring a penalty from the Teachers Retirement System, the state pension plan for public school teachers.
If they wait past the first year, teachers will lose the ability to get the 5-percent bumps in their last two years.
"Now it's a true retirement incentive instead of a thank you for working in the district," Kuzniewski said, adding that there are five teachers eligible to take advantage of the 5-percent benefit when the new contract is effective, at the start of the 2018-19 school year.
The new contract also begins to change the school district's health insurance premium contributions for employees who take part in the HMO program offered in District 95.
In the past, the district has covered 85 percent of the premium cost for employees who participate in the PPO program, but 100 percent for those in the HMO. By the end of the contract, district contributions for HMO premiums will also be 85 percent.
"The district has eaten the increases in premiums [over the years for the HMO plan] without attention to controlling costs," Kuzniewski said. "It's a huge number and it has to be controlled. This will help start that process."
The contract also tweaks the way teachers can qualify for additional compensation by attaining advanced degrees and continuing to take classes.
For example, a teacher with a bachelor's degree and 15 additional credit hours of classwork will earn an additional $1,000 per year in perpetuity. By attaining a master's degree, that same teacher will earn another $3,000 annually.
A District 95 teacher can earn as much as $12,000 in additional annual pay based on degrees earned and credit hours completed. Those amounts are added prior to including the 3-percent annual pay increase.
The setup incentivizes teaches to further their educations, said Kuzniewski, instead of simply rewarding teachers for longevity.