Evergreen Dist. 124 hopes to reach contract agreement with teachers

By Laura Bollin

Evergreen Park School District 124 and the Southwest Suburban Federation of Teachers Local No. 943 teachers’ union have been meeting weekly for the past month in hopes of reaching a contract agreement by the time school starts in September.

Superintendent Robert Machak said negotiations for the contract began in April, and the latest meeting was held this morning.

“Everyone is interested in finalizing a fair contract,” Machak said.

“We want to focus on teaching and learning once the kids come back.”

The district is facing a nearly $767,000 deficit, and is looking at several different options — including new insurance plans — to help cut down on costs. With teachers and support staff, the contract includes 200 people, Machak said.

Representatives from the teachers’ union could not be reached for comment.

The district’s executive director of business services, Dean Gerdes, said that the last contract began in July 2009 and lasted for three years.

“The length of this contract is not clear to us yet,” Gerdes said.

“It has to be at least one year, and typically, contracts run up to five years.” Gerdes said with the tough economy, a contract could be reached that was less than five years.

One of the bigger issues in this year’s contract is insurance. The district currently offers three different insurance plans — two PPO plans and an HMO plan.

“We are talking to the union about a fourth insurance plan, which is a health services account, Gerdes said.

“A health services account is a high deductible plan that is not taxable. The balance of the funds belongs to the employee. If you don’t spend all the funds in one year, it rolls over.”

“The health services account is like a flexible spending account. Typically, if you don’t spend that money, at the end of the year, it is gone, but with a health services account, that money rolls over.”

Another change to the contract might be a change in lane structure — a grid system that determines a teacher’s salary based on his or her level of education and experience.

“That system is an artifact of the past,” Gerdes said.

“We still need to recognize that people are improving by taking continuing education classes, and recognize longevity, but it can be done in ways other than a grid. We are looking at adding a dollar amount per credit hour earned each year. As education increases, a teacher’s pay will increase accordingly.”

Machak said the district was planning on expanding some of their teaching positions.

“We have a part-time coordinator for gifted students, and we are looking to expand that to full time,” Machak said.

“We are also looking to add some teaching positions. We will be adding at least two positions, but will probably be adding more than that.”

The district has 1,900 students, Machak said.

“Just like in any school district, there is not an infinite number of dollars to spend,” Machak said.

“We are trying to give the staff what is fair. What has been encouraging to me is that every time we meet, it is a conversation. Both sides have been amicable and professional, and both sides are really interested in getting this done.”