Unlike United Airlines and its flight attendants’ union, in Evanston, both District 65 and ETHS District 202 and their respective teachers’ unions are keeping mum on the status of labor contracts. While we understand not negotiating in public, the appearance of “we support District 65 teachers” signs raises questions about contract status.
More questions are raised by the District discontinuing last fall’s discussion of the structural deficit where expenses grow faster than income, while repeating its historical practice of showing a balanced budget next year but mounting shortfalls thereafter. 84% of District 65’s $111 million budget comprises payroll, and of that, 90% goes to unionized employees, the largest group being the district’s 600+ teachers. This is neither surprising nor bad for a school district whose primary mission is teaching. The 2012 teachers’ contract provides annual cost of living increases of 1.5%, plus step and track increases to recognize teachers’ professional growth and increasing responsibilities, for an average annual raise of 4-5%. Parents appreciate the teachers who work with our children and hope they are fairly compensated and enticed to stick around.
The other side of the structural deficit is income, which comes largely from taxpayers, one way or another. Of that $111 million budget, 76% comes from our property taxes, 11% from the state, and 8% from federal funding. Even ignoring the dysfunction in Springfield, Evanston homeowners and renters are concerned about the $85 million for District 65 that comes from property taxes. Since 1994, Illinois’ Tax Cap Law has limited growth in district levied property taxes to the lesser of 5% or growth in the consumer price index. Since 1994, the CPI averaged 2.24% growth, and since 2010 it averaged only 1.53%. Raises of 4-5% while CPI grows at 1-2% creates the structural deficit, and the administration and board were right to highlight this concern last fall.
District 65 has used three main strategies to balance its budget in the face of this structural deficit. One is cutting supplies, outside contracts, and other non-personnel expenses. At a certain point, the district cannot cut its electric bills further or foist more supplies costs onto families. A second strategy is issuing bonds to pay current expenses with long term financing, since tax levies to pay debt service are exempt from the cap. The board and administration acknowledged this year that paying for technology from bond issues is unsustainable but deferred changing this to the future. The third and most concerning strategy is cutting positions. It’s one thing to lay off administrators at the central office. More troubling is laying off some art and music teachers and making the rest shuttle between schools, eliminating reading and other specialists who historically focused on student achievement disparities, and replacing special education teachers with less expensive and less qualified aides. We have seen these cuts and others over the last decade, and it is unclear what positions can still be cut without painful effects being felt in classrooms. Bottom line, to balance its budget while a structural deficit continues, District 65 will have no choice but to eliminate more positions every year.
There is no simple solution here. Capping raises at CPI will feel like a slight to valued employees and may look out of sync with what other districts do. Continued cuts will soon translate into further layoffs of fine arts teachers, reading specialists, and other professionals, with direct and unfortunate consequences for our children’s education. A potential referendum to increase taxes beyond what the cap allows has been mentioned in the fine print of recent board packets. Even if a referendum fared better than the one that failed in 2012, raising taxes without addressing mismatched growth rates only kicks the problem down the road.
United and its flight attendants openly discussed their challenges and commitment to reach agreement. In District 65, we have silence from the board, the administration, and DEC leadership on both negotiations and critical economic challenges. These have not been solved by silence, but we have hardly heard about them in 2016.
Come on, folks, tell us you’re talking. Reiterate the challenges facing our district, even if you can’t go into detail. Do the sides agree on interests and alternatives? Will you negotiate through summer or start school under 2012 terms, or should we expect a strike just as schools are poised to open? Are you using a neutral moderator? Was the last few years’ welcome collaboration among stakeholders for naught now that contracts are up for renewal? Will you announce far reaching changes while the community is on summer vacation?
Parents and taxpayers may have no role in contract talks, but we do care about our children’s education and about our tax bills. And we are watching how you approach your responsibilities to our community’s children and taxpayers.