A Tale of Two Districts

Eli Austin, Staff Writer

It’s strange to think that our own school community of Deerfield High School is an anomaly. In the state of Illinois, 96.2% of teachers belong to a union. Yet District 113 chooses not to have one, despite Deerfield being so close to the stronghold of unions in Chicago. Instead, Deerfield opts for a different approach, the DEA which  is a non-union organization that serves as the representation for all teachers in both HPHS and DHS to voices their opinions to the Board of Education. This outlier of an organization has been a staple of DHS and HPHS since the 1990’s. On the other hand, our feeder school, District 109 has a very solid union in place, causing an interesting juxtaposition. Despite being in the same area, District 113 and District 109 have fundamental differences in both organization and the ways they will change and adapt to concerns ranging from the coronavirus pandemic to teachers’ rights and working conditions.

District 109 has had their union, the DEA (Deerfield Education Association) in place for more than 25 years. District 113 and District 109 have the same acronym for their respective organizations. For future reference District 109’s union will be referred to as “the union” and District 113’s organization will be referred to as the “DEA”. I spoke with Dennis Jensen, the president of the union to discuss its current place within the district as well as the inner workings and details of the union. The Deerfield Education Association is an affiliate of the Illinois Education Association which is in turn a subsidiary of the National Education Association (NEA). The NEA is the largest teachers’ labor union in the United States with an estimated membership of over two million. 

District 109’s teachers have a considerable amount of say over their time, hours, and wages. This control is extremely important during the pandemic, as it acts as a safeguard against infringement of teachers’ rights. Mr. Lavin, social studies teacher and president of the DEA at Deerfield High School noted difficulties over teacher input during the pandemic. “There clearly are times when the administration has invited the opinions of teachers. But keep in mind that the decisions ultimately are the administration’s to make. And in many respects, our input I would say has been limited during the pandemic in regards to working conditions.” 

Another difference is in the sheer bureaucratic mechanisms behind each organization. This can best be seen in a simple measure, the contract size of each DEA. District 109 has a huge contract of 74 pages long, detailing specifics from payment to rules regarding previously mentioned teachers’ rights and working conditions. The length  can also be attributed to the contract covering information like grievance procedures, substitute teachers, duration of the agreement, medical leave, and many other topics. Yet comparatively, District 113’s contract is much slimmer at only 22 page. The explanation Mr. Lavin has for this is, “historically we haven’t needed anything more than that. Because we’ve always understood each other, we’ve always cooperated and collaborated.” He finishes off this optimistic statement with a bleak foreshadowing, “Now, will that stay the same? I don’t know. I don’t know. And we’ve gone through some very difficult times in recent years. And I’m not even speaking of a pandemic.”

The future of District 113’s non-union is unclear. In the past, District 113 has had no reason to unionize. Mr. Lavin remarks, “historically, the incentives haven’t been there. Now, is that as true today as it was 20 years ago? No. So I don’t know what the future holds. But I do know what has worked in the past. So we shall see.” Previously there had been no explicit reason for District 113 to unionize, up until recent failure for the administration to promote within their own ranks. Lavin thinks this is one of the biggest issues with the administration. He states, “The fundamental structural problem in this district is we don’t invest in and train and hire our own people for senior administrative positions, with very limited exceptions. We have what the athletes call no bench. There is no bench here. And that is a direct result of decisions by boards going back decades and administrations that they’d rather buy it off the shelf from someplace else than invest in their own people.”

He points out that this philosophy, as he puts it, is visible in other districts. Places such as Lake Forest, Glenbrook and New Trier have all promoted teachers who have ambitions and potential to thrive in administrative roles, who then promote other prospective teachers. Over time, this turns into a culture. This critical aspect of the culture of public education is lost in Deerfield and Highland Park high schools, most likely due to the absence of strong teacher influence on decisions the Board makes. Mr. Lavin believes that culture is critical to public education. In his own words, our district has a culture of collaboration and hiring elsewhere puts this valued aspect at risk. 

With recent concerns raised by teachers such as Mr. Lavin in regards to outside hiring by the Board, it is yet to be seen if the Board will be receptive to this. As for District 109’s organization, they have 100% membership across all Deerfield grade schools and middle schools, all the while having non-compulsory membership. It is needless to say that the next few years will be decisive for District 113. Shadows of doubt and concerns have been raised, and the administration’s actions have the potential to determine whether or not the DEA can stand the test of time.