Ill. School Board: Making Change Work

By Del Stover

With the district running a sizable deficit and the fiscal picture looking bleak for the foreseeable future, school leaders in Illinois’ Skokie-Morton Grove School District 69 knew they had to make some major changes in how they did business.

But they didn’t limit themselves to the standard, everyday response to a budget crisis --  painful spending cuts and staff layoffs.

Instead, they decided to use their financial crisis as an impetus for something new and revolutionary. After lengthy talks with their teachers union, school officials broke away from the traditional salary schedule and tied future compensation to inflation --  a move that should help stabilize future budgets.

It only makes sense, says Superintendent Quintin Shepherd.

“Under the old compensation model, a teacher got a percentage increase for advancing a year on the salary schedule, and over time, that’s like compound interest that’s added to their salary every year --  it continues to grow,” he says. “This is a problem because these salary increases have nothing to do with the district’s revenue stream.”

The new compensation model is a radical change --  one that will prevent salary costs from outpacing revenues as it did in the past, school officials say. That should help the district contain costs and, in future economic hard times, make it easier to avoid drastic cuts in academic programs or teacher layoffs.

Financial problems

No one had any idea that such a solution was in the works when Shepherd joined the 1,700-student school district in 2010. At that time, says school board President Terri Lefler, the district was still in “dire financial straits” and the board was preoccupied with making deep and unpopular budget cuts.

“We knew when Quintin came in that one of the primary tasks was to get our finances back in order, even though the school board had started down that path,” Lefler says.

In his first year on the job, Shepherd helped the school board make more budget cuts, trimming staff and programs and renegotiating vendor contracts. “This was basically to stop the bleeding,” he says. “But it didn’t solve our [long-term] financial problems.”

But Shepherd had an idea. In Illinois, school districts rely heavily on property taxes, a more stable source of revenue than in districts that depend on more volatile state funding. If he could convince the teachers union to throw out the traditional salary schedule and tie compensation to the consumer price index (CPI), then both the district and teachers would see a benefit.

“The most logical argument I had was that, when CPI goes up, when home values are going up, we’re going to pay teachers more,” he says. “In turn, when the economy is depressed and home values flatten, when the district is struggling financially, teachers will struggle with us. We’ll celebrate good times together, and we’ll struggle in bad times together, and we’ll get through it.”

Honest, ongoing communication

While the school board allowed Shepherd to take the lead in exploring this new compensation model, Lefler says, the school board attempted to keep its finger on the pulse of the community and its concerns about the district’s finances.

“We recognized that there were certain priorities for our community --  one being that we could not continue to raise property taxes,” she says. “So that was a big part of the board’s focus --  what can we do to live within our means?”

The new compensation model was first pitched to the classified employees union, whose contract talks came up first, Lefler says. Winning them over, Shepherd had a precedent when it came time to talk to the teachers’ union.

It still could have been a hard sell. But, as Shepherd likes to joke, it only took two sittings at the bargaining table to hammer out a deal. Sharing that fact with other school administrators, he says, often earns him stunned looks.

Of course, Shepherd leaves out some details in the first telling. Later, he’ll admit, although formal negotiations were short, “the reality is the union president and I spent hundreds of hours talking about what would happen in negotiations long before we ever sat down formally. There was nothing we said at the bargaining table that teachers didn’t already know we were going to say.”

Honest, ongoing communications among administration, school board, and union have always been considered key to a good working relationship --  and Lefler gives Shepherd credit for his work in earning the trust of teachers.

“It was my first time sitting on the teacher negotiations committee, and I didn’t know what to expect. But, in light of [the teachers strike] a few months later in Chicago, our negotiations were fabulous.”

Encourging research and development

It took discussion to resolve some issues. Although tied to the CPI, teacher pay was guaranteed a minimum annual increase of 1.5 percent and a maximum of 4.5 percent. The educational attainment of teachers also is reflected in the compensation package, with pay increases set to 85 percent of CPI for teachers with a bachelor’s degree and rising to 100 percent of CPI for those with a master’s degree and additional credit hours.

Both sides also agreed to allow teachers to supplement their base compensation with stipends by forming study groups that research projects aimed at boosting student achievement.

Shepherd describes it as research and development. “We have language in the contract that allows a group of teachers to offer to study student data and come up with instructional ideas they’re going to try in the classroom --  something that’s never been done before in our schools. It doesn’t matter if it works or not. We want to try new stuff as we move forward.”

So far, these study groups have shown promise, he says. One team of language arts teachers at the district’s K-2 school decided to regularly assess students’ mastery of skills and assign them to classes according to their progress and learning needs.

But it’s not tracking, he says. Students are retested every six weeks and regrouped according to their progress. They move back and forth among student groups as their performance merits.

The results? “Achievement scores for some grades that were early adopters of the model went up almost 20 percent,” Shepherd says. “This is the kind of classrooms we dream of.”

Another study group, meanwhile, developed new instructional tools for their students and, after presenting the results of their efforts at a conference, they were approached by a publisher interested in turning their homemade material into a commercial product.

Adding a research stipend to the compensation package was an idea that the board applauded, Lefler says.

“We believed a school board must value the hard work of teachers, so we wanted to find a way to still recognize them --  a method where teachers could earn a little beyond their base pay. With the study groups, that was perceived as a win-win for all of us.”

Creating a healthy culture

The school board’s support --  and its efforts to create a healthy culture of high expectations and honest communications --  certainly helped steer the district through its recent difficult times, Shepherd says. “They created the conditions for success in this district --  by keeping their eye on the ball.”

Not many school officials can say they’ve managed to save money and boost their academic program at the same time --  particularly through their union contract. But officials in Skokie-Morton Grove are now reaping the rewards. Already, there is some new money to hire a new art teacher, add a few programs, and invest in new curriculum changes.

“I see us on the cusp of making exciting changes,” Lefler says, because “we now have money with which to work.”

Del Stover (dstover@nsba.org) is a senior editor of American School Board Journal.