Kersey: Closer look at District 155 union numbers

In the ongoing contract negotiations between teachers and School District 155, the District 155 Education Association has resorted to a typical union tactic: cherry-picking.

To bolster its argument in the negotiations, the union’s website lists the average teacher salaries in several other school districts: Downers Grove District 99, Niles Township District 219 and Maine Township District 207 located in the Park Ridge area, among others. Conveniently, District 155’s average teacher salary of $94,866 is the second lowest on the list. Taken at face value, this list appears to be evidence that District 155 teachers are underpaid.

But face value does not provide the truth. What the union did was select a handful of districts from other counties, even some districts as far as 50 miles away. Not only are these districts located in a different geographic region than Crystal Lake schools, the socioeconomics of these communities are quite different.

All seven of the school districts the union identified as comparable are located in much wealthier communities than District 155. It makes sense that teachers in these districts are paid more, not only because the standard of living is higher, but because these schools have access to much more property wealth that can be taxed.

School districts are primarily funded by local property taxes, and property taxes are levied as a percentage of local property value.

According to the most recent data available from the Illinois State Board of Education, in 2010, District 155 had approximately $3.2 billion of property wealth to tax. That is a lot of money – but among the lowest of any of the school districts listed on the union website. On a per-student basis, the property wealth for Crystal Lake students is lower than all of the other seven districts the union cherry-picked.

Niles Township District 219, for example, has nearly $4.8 billion in property wealth to tax. Township High School District 214 in the Buffalo Grove, Wheeling and Elk Grove Village area has more than $10.4 billion in property wealth available to tax. These districts are much wealthier, but the District 155 teachers union is attempting to paint them as comparable.

The union’s list portraying its teachers as underpaid is extremely misleading. It’s resulted in a great deal of unjustified anguish for teachers, as well as parents who are now made to feel that the sky-high property taxes they pay in still isn’t enough to satisfy the demands of the teachers union.

Justin Hubly, president of the District 155 Education Association, said the reason the union chose those districts was twofold: “We wanted to make sure we were comparing high school-only districts. Also our school district and administration has used those districts in the past to benchmark test scores. We just wanted to use the same list they had been using.”

When looking at the high school-only districts in McHenry County, the teachers from District 155 still have the highest salaries. While it is reasonable to use schools with similar curriculums and standards for analyzing student achievement and test scores, it is ridiculous to expect taxpayers to pay equivalent or higher teacher salaries than districts from much wealthier communities with significantly higher tax bases.

Here’s a different list that taxpayers in Crystal Lake should take a look at: the list of average teacher salaries in McHenry County. On that list, District 155 teachers are the best-paid in the county by a longshot with their $94,866 average salary. The next highest average teacher salary is in Cary District 26, at $78,545.

Countywide, the average teacher salary in McHenry county is $62,828. Clearly, the outrage over low teacher pay is misplaced at best.

If anything, the comparison should lead District 155 taxpayers to wonder how their district is able to afford such high teacher salaries, and also to ask if it might be time for taxpayers to get some relief. Perhaps, given this new and more accurate information, the teachers will be willing to accept pay that is more reasonably priced given the socioeconomics of Crystal Lake.

The District 155 Education Association should not try to compare its district to other districts that are not comparable economically. It is morally wrong for them to expect that District 155 taxpayers will adopt a pay schedule that is based on the economies and tax bases of much wealthier districts.

Teacher union tricks like this aren’t fair. Teachers, administrators and taxpayers in District 155 shouldn’t fall for them.

• Paul Kersey is the director of labor policy at the Illinois Policy Institute.

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