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Our View: District 155 taxpayers left in dark

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

School District 155’s school board is prepared to spend a lot of your money Tuesday night, yet you have no idea how much or on what.

The board and the district’s teachers recently reached agreement on a new three-year contract. The agreement came after 10 months of negotiations, which stalled last fall over salary and benefit differences. Teachers ratified the contract by a 268-114 vote Friday.

“We always hoped we would come to terms,” School board President Ted Wagner said. “I think with everybody working together, we’ve come to a contract that we believe the taxpayers can live with, and we believe we’re supporting our teachers.”

Did you catch the most disturbing part of Wagner’s comment? They believe they’ve come up with a contract the taxpayers can live with. Why guess? Give us the details before you vote on it. Let taxpayers tell you they can live with it instead of telling them you think they’ll live with it.

Taxpayers should not be in the dark on something as expensive as a teachers’ contract before the school board votes on it. School districts represent the largest chunk of residents’ property-tax bills, and teachers’ salaries represent the largest expense in school districts’ budgets.

Nothing forbids the school board from providing taxpayers, who are on the hook for the contract, details of the contract – other than angering the union.

This is not a situation unique to District 155. Keeping taxpayers in the dark is common in teachers’ contract negotiations. It shouldn’t be.

Because District 155 refuses to provide contract details, we only can hope it didn’t stray too far from its final offer to teachers before an impasse was declared.

In that offer, the school board kept annual step increases – salary hikes that are tied to years of teaching experience. It also kept lane increases – salary hikes that are linked to a teacher’s continuing education. These step and lane increases result in teachers getting raises in excess of 3 percent each year.

The school board also asked that teachers start picking up a portion of their own pension contributions. This is an absolute must.

State law requires that 9.4 percent of Illinois teachers’ salaries go to the Teacher Retirement System, the pension system that pays teachers after they retire. School districts also are required to pay 0.58 percent of their teachers’ salaries into TRS.

In District 155 and many other districts, however, the district – i.e., taxpayers – pays for the teachers’ full share of the retirement contribution.

In year one of the board’s contract offer at the impasse stage, the district offered to pay 74 percent of the teachers’ pension contribution. In year two, the district offered to pay 53 percent, and in year three, 32 percent.

We hope the district didn’t back down in the agreement it reached with teachers. But we don’t know. We get to find out after the board votes to spend the money.

In the end, the taxpayers’ only recourse if they believe the board negotiated and approved a bad contract will be to vote out board members who supported such an agreement.

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