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Financial outlook is likely teachers contract worry

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For the first time in 36 years, Evanston/Skokie School District 65 teachers have started the school year without a contract, and it is increasingly looking like the district’s financial outlook is the culprit.

Both the board and the teachers union released statements this week about the contract negotiations outlook without giving any details of the issues, but the district regularly cites forthcoming deficits as a major problem it has to cope with.

While the budget for the current year, formally passed by the board at its meeting Monday night, is balanced, school officials again have warned that the next few years pose a threat of what they call “structural deficits” that could mean the loss of several critical programs and the jobs of teachers and other staff members that run them.

Because the “Instruction” budget category, which includes teachers salaries, represents more than half of the budget, the three-year contract currently under negotiation with the teachers could prove to be critical. The budget for that category this year is $65.3 million, about a 5 percent increase from the $61.8 million spent last year, including salaries for seven additional teachers and four teaching assistants to meet an 87-student increase in enrollments.

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Actually, the teachers are not the only district employees operating without a contract, the District Educators Council (the teachers union) points out, but also the unions representing custodians, secretaries, teaching assistants, and childcare workers as well.

DEC has expressed criticism of the administration for not involving more School Board members in the negotiating process and has finally been successful in convincing the negotiators to seek the help of federal mediation.

The administration, while finally agreeing to DEC’s request for the federal help, countered that it has been following common practice of other districts, including Evanston Township High School District 202, “to appoint a bargaining team comprised of school principals and senior administrators with leadership and oversight by the superintendent and board.”

But underlying the district’s financial future, the administration asserts that its bargaining “must be done within the context of the district’s grim financial outlook,” with projected deficits starting at $4.5 million next school year “and potentially reaching a deficit of $10 million by 2020.”

Also looking at the financial future of the district, DEC notes that the district allocated about $92 thousand for consultants in the 2013-2014 budget year, while last year’s budget had increased that amount to nearly $367 thousand.

While the high school District 202 board faces similar uncertainties, it reached an agreement with its teachers union this summer for a one-year contract to hold them over while they continue negotiations for a longer term.

Both DEC and the administration profess a desire to reach an agreement soon, but both sides, not to mention the taxpayers, are nervous about commitments they may live to regret if potential state funding changes, including pension reform and the reallocation of general state aid, don’t go the district’s way.

Charles Bartling

Charles Bartling

A resident of Evanston since 1975, Chuck Bartling holds a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and has extensive experience as a reporter and editor for daily newspapers, radio stations and business-oriented magazines.

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