Warren’s Teacher’s Union and Board of Education Agree on New Contract

For students who may have only heard in passing about our teachers working without a contract, or wondered why they were all wearing blue Warren shirts on certain days of the month, the details of what exactly took place have been summarily provided by three key individuals: Superintendent of District 121, Dr. Ahlgrim; Almond Social Studies teacher and Union President, Mr. Jecmen; and Almond Special-Education teacher and Negotiating Chair, Ms. Thompson.

Context

Dr. Ahlgrim’s role in the contract negotiations (as well as others’ in the district office) was to help provide information to both sides relative to the school district, help coordinate the actual sessions themselves, and provide input to both sides on administrative issues related to the collective bargaining agreement, because the Board of Education generally needs some information regarding some of the management-type issues within the collective bargaining agreement.

Mr. Jecmen’s role was to be a communicator and facilitator for all members. He also acts as the spokesperson for the organization in the media. 

Appointed by Mr. Jecmen is Ms. Thompson, who as the head negotiator, gathered a team to set out what the goals of the contract should be and sent out a survey to assess what union members wanted to see done.

It’s important to first establish an understanding of the two organizations involved in the negotiations. Dr. Ahlgrim explained, “The D121 Board of Education is the collective group of elected officials for the school district. They are the ultimate authority on decisions, although much of the regular management of the school district and daily decisions are delegated to our administrators.  The Board does approve all expenditures (including salaries), and contracts in general (including employee contracts). The Warren Township High School Federation of Teachers (WTHSFT) is the local union representing the teachers and most of our classified staff.”

As a side note, teachers are designated as certified staff, meaning that they have earned degrees in their subjects and are certified to teach. Classified staff are school employees that do not necessarily need certification or licensure to qualify for their jobs, such as secretaries, maintenance workers, and librarians. Administrators, including deans and principals, and bus drivers, are not part of the union.

The job of the union, according to Mr. Jecmen, is to represent the rights and working conditions of our workers. Union members have a legal right to bargain collectively, to represent their needs and rights with the Board of Education.

“The Board’s negotiating team and the WTHSFT negotiating team,” Dr. Ahlgrim continued, “which represented their respective groups for the negotiations, began meeting in January 2018, and first exchanged proposals (which means actually discussing potential contract items) in March 2018.  The negotiating teams met approximately 30 times over the 13 month span in which the negotiations occurred. A tentative agreement was reached on March 14 by the negotiating teams, and this was formally ratified by the WTHSFT membership on April 16 and approved by the Board on April 23, 2019.”

The purpose of any collective bargaining agreement is to have in writing, the terms and conditions of employment, which includes regulation of workers’ salaries, benefits, rights, and types of leaves (personal, sick days). Teachers at Warren are employed by the district which is governed by the Board of Education, and thus require a contract. Previous contracts were always in effect for 5 years, and matters outlined in the contract were negotiated in a timely manner when necessary, or teachers operated under the same rolled-over terms from old versions.

Issues and Changes

However, what made this instance different is that when the last contract ended on June 30th of last year, it took, as stated previously, 13 months to agree on a new one. Why?

There were a multitude of issues to address.

First, the contract that WTHSFT members had just come off of had a lot of old language that had been carried over from the years. Mr. Jecmen felt that it was “a great opportunity to clean up contract language, look at where we want to go, and put in place new speech that will benefit that direction.”

Second, there used to be two separate contracts for our teachers and classified staff which had to be merged into one contract with sections that would apply equally to both groups where possible. This took a long time.

Third are the actual terms themselves. The main points of discontent with the former contract were insurance coverage, coaching pay, salary, and student service caseload sizes. With insurance, the stipend amount for dependent tiers, meaning the family of union members, was the lowest in northern Illinois. Coaching pay was the lowest in Lake County.

While teachers’ salary varies based on years of experience and other factors, from research conducted by the WTHSFT, they found that there are two tiers of high school teachers’ salaries. The higher tier consists of schools like Stevenson, Lake Forest, Vernon Hills, and Libertyville. The lower tier includes Warren, Waukegan, Round Lake, and North Chicago. Warren was at the top of the lower tier.

Jecmen states that the mission of Warren as a school is to keep, attract, and retain quality faculty members.

Schools are “a business, and like every other business, you want to make sure that you are remaining competitive.”

While this may sound like a harsh way of describing schools, which we often champion as institutions of learning and enlightenment and so forth, it’s logically true that having low insurance coverage, low coaching pay and comparatively lower salaries across the board, as well as student caseload sizes that are too large for the limited number of guidance counselors and school psychologists to effectively handle will negatively impact the quality of service that the school can provide its students.

Therefore, Jecmen’s point that Warren must improve to be competitive is completely valid.

He reasons that we must “do the best we can to keep and attract quality people due to the fact that all public schools in Illinois are funded by property taxes. This is an investment that people make in their homes, which is why they move to communities like ours and expect that quality to be reflected in their schools. And that’s where we come in – to make sure that as investors in the community, their investment is well represented and well taken care of.”

When asked what improvements have been made with the ratification of the newly drafted agreement, Dr. Ahlgrim responded with positive news: “The new CBA has fewer instances of differences in classification of employee wages or benefits based on your seniority in the district, which also helps to build unity in our overall philosophy. Several items were updated to align with new legal requirements. The collective bargaining agreement also provided for some additional increases to salaries and enhancements to the benefit structure for staff which not only recognizes the great contributions to our school community by our current staff but also helps the district continue to be competitive in attracting great staff over the course of the five-year agreement.”

Ms. Thompson and Mr. Jecmen voiced their agreements, sharing how with these changes, Warren will no longer be in the bottom tier, but will be middle average or even higher than the middle in regards to salary, coverage, and other benefits, which is what they were aiming for.

Reactions to Results

Passed by a unanimous vote, teachers are indeed satisfied with the new contract. Jecmen assures, “We never would have agreed to the terms of the contract if we felt that there were things left unresolved. We feel 100% that the things we were looking for, we received.”

Dr. Ahlgrim said, “I am very satisfied with the contract, but also know that my satisfaction lies in the fact that I believe the Board of Education and WTHSFT are satisfied.  Both sides worked extremely hard to develop and exchange proposals, and review dome contract language and processes that had not been thoroughly examined for several past contract negotiations. Many legal revisions and capturing of our current practices was very important. These processes take time and very close attention to do well and I am proud to have seen the commitment demonstrated by both negotiating teams.  The new collective bargaining contract will last through 2023 so I believe both sides felt very good about the end product.”

Further, despite what dramatizations may have circulated due to steps towards a teachers’ strike back in February, Dr. Ahlgrim stated that a negotiations process is “one of continual exchanges of proposals which are reviewed thoroughly and compromises made until both sides are comfortable with the ultimate agreement.”

The Board and the WTHSFT aren’t meant to be at odds, but are meant to work collaboratively to reach an outcome that benefits both sides, the students and our community.

Mr. Jecmen and Ms. Thompson supported these sentiments in their assertion that “we (the Board and Union) never stopped talking. We never walked away from the negotiating table.”

But the union members had reached a point where they felt that the length of time spent negotiating had not yielded a lot of the things they thought to be important.

Mr. Jecmen said that “in terms of being able to show how serious we were and how critical these things in the contract were to the Board, we had to do that,” referencing their preparation for a strike.

“It’s a fairly normal move sometimes taken by schools. Though it was the first time Warren had to, it yielded the results we see now in this new agreement.”

“At the end of the day, we’re really happy we didn’t have to go on strike,” he said. “Nobody wanted that. But I think it was also a great moment for our community because as some point in your lifetime, you have to stand up for what you believe in, and our staff, our members were willing to stand up for what they believed was fair and right.”

Future Implications

So what does this all mean for Warren’s future?

“We want people to look at Warren as a great place to work, a great place to teach, and a great place to live,” said Mr. Jecmen who also resides in the community. He elaborated,“it’s unfortunate that we look at other schools like that one’s bad, that one’s good – that’s a sad thing. It sucks that it’s that way. But we want to make sure that we’re taking good care of ourselves, that our homeowners are happy with what they see going on at warren. And when they move out, that there are people moving right back in because they know that Warren’s a great high school.”

With student enrollment slowly declining over the years, teachers retiring that are not being replaced, and class sizes changing, Mr. Jecmen said the nice thing is still, “we are part of the conversation, we are at the table always talking about these things. . . to make sure that our school and classes are adequate and fair for all students, all learning styles.”

People may question where the money to fund teachers’ raises is coming from, but rest assured, no new tax increases will occur as a result of these increases.

Ms. Thompson expressed her confidence in the community. “Everything that we proposed, we were always comfortable with making it public.”

For those who are unaware, on the d121.org website under the District 121 tab, there is a Financial Information link which opens a page where you can view the specifics of Warren’s budget, insurance rates, wages and compensation for teachers, etc.

“We knew that our community would support the increases we were asking for, because it’s what’s best for our kids. We want to get the best teachers in here,” said Ms. Thompson.

Mr. Jecmen added, “Also, largely because some of these things did become public,” referring to updates by the school about what the union and board were negotiating, “it did get a lot of our community involved in looking at the school and asking good questions about our budget and salaries and looking at the comparisons we were putting out.

“We received a lot of good support from parents and our alumni and we were really proud of that. It’s not like we were just demanding things, but our results support our stance. Our test scores go up every year and are competitive with Libertyville, with Lake Forest. We offer just as many or if not more programs – if you look at the accomplishments of our athletic teams and our band, our theater department and speech team.

“I mean, we rank always within the best in Illinois. It was great to have parents come out and look at the data. And that data for us is the results that we produce: graduation rates, acceptance to colleges, and all of the great things that we do that show that what the teachers are asking for is fair.”

Warren’s slogan, Better Together, embodies what has been done here.

“Negotiating this contracted reminded us of the things that matter, that we value the most. Despite that the contract took a long time to settle,” Jecmen smiles, “In the end, everybody knew that this school is a great school because we are better and stronger together.”

Ending Thoughts

Mr. Jecmen and Ms. Thompson would like to extend their thanks towards students for their support even without knowing what specifically was going on. They hope that it was a learning opportunity about unions, worker’s rights, and collective bargaining. Even though students were concerned about the possibility of a strike just a few months before their AP exams, they were still very understanding. They also thank the parents and the community for their support as well.