DOWNERS GROVE – Salary and health care benefits are two key issues in the ongoing negotiations between Downers Grove Grade School District 58 and the union that represents more than 350 teachers and other professional staff.
But the rift that exists between the Downers Grove Elementary Education Association, the administration and the Board of Education has widened over time for reasons not entirely associated with compensation and benefits.
Many teachers believe they are both disrespected and underappreciated by District 58 officials, said Craig Young, president of the teachers' union, and he points to poor communication between the two sides as a primary reason.
“The board and administration work together to make decisions, and many times they have done so without checking with teachers to make sure what they are doing actually makes sense in the classroom,” Young said in an email.
That process wasn’t always the norm, he said. In fact, when he joined the district in 2005, committees were formed to study potential changes to curriculum or teaching practice. If the change was agreed on, it would be piloted in a few classrooms at each grade level prior to districtwide implementation, Young said.
The “breaking point” for teachers occurred at the end of the 2015-16 school year, he said.
“The district had not implemented a new English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum in over a decade and had no plans to do so any time soon,” Young said.
Common Core standards had been approved by the government, but the district’s curriculum did not meet the learning standards, he said. As a result, some teachers purchased curricular materials that met Common Core standards.
“Many teachers had to write grants with the Downers Grove Education Foundation or work with their PTAs when the curricular materials they needed were too expensive to purchase from their own pockets,” Young said.
The new ELA curriculum will be launched districtwide in the coming school year.
The union also is upset about the district’s decision to move $2 million out of the medical reserve fund to meet other expenses. The district has a self-funded insurance plan, so the medical reserve fund is used to pay claims for everyone covered by district insurance.
“To have the board take money out of the medical reserves felt like a slap in the face to teachers,” Young said. “In our eyes, it showed a lack of concern for the needs of the teachers and a lack of respect for the value we bring to the district.”
He also criticized the school board because he believes it's adverse to meeting with union representatives as a group.
"The board seems to prefer one-on-one conversations with individual teachers speaking with individual board members,” Young said. “We feel it would be more effective and efficient to be able to speak with all of them at once."
The district and union are working to repair these issues, he said. For example, both sides have agreed all decisions will be made by committee consensus.
“I hope that, through the strategic planning process, we can continue to build on this and find a way for the board and administration to see the value in listening to the teachers in the classroom as well as behaving in ways that allow teachers to trust the administration and the board,” Young said.
District 58 did not immediately respond to a request for comment on specific issues related to negotiations.
“We are always interested in and striving to better [understand] issues raised by our union groups, and are working to support ongoing collaboration and open communication,” Superintendent Kari Cremascoli said. “Contract negotiations are ongoing, and we look forward to continuing these conversations as well.”