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Dinosaur Knowledge

Veteran Workers Know Where the Bodies Are Buried, So Treat Them Well

Dave Arnold

You know those veteran workers at your school?

The ones with gray hair, out-of-style eyewear, and 20-plus year's experience? Be nice to them.

They know where the bodies are buried. They know the secrets, legends and myths of the school. They have institutional knowledge.

Unfortunately, not all schools acknowledge the inherent value of decades spent on the job. Last June, I completed 25 years of employment for my school district in Brownstown, Illinois. Just as anticipated, the event passed without notice (see a previous column, "You've Got a Friend ").

The only recognition I received is what most people might consider a slap in the face.

Adding Salt to the Wound

Since having organized my local Association of education support professionals (ESP) in 1993, I have served as president and been on every contract negotiation team since. I have also served as head negotiator for my ESP local. Because of a family medical emergency, I wasn't able to sit in on the negotiations this year. Still, my name came up a lot at the meetings due solely to my having spent 25 years on the job.

Association negotiators knew the school district wouldn't be able to match the pay offered in other nearby school districts. So, we were considering a simple cost of living increase with some additional language changes that included more time off on non-attendance days.

What's in a Title?

While I sat at the hospital (my mom was ill), members of our negotiating team made their proposals. The school board's offer promised to save money for the district. They proposed a cost of living increase of 3 percent, 4 percent, and 4.5 percent over the next three years. The catch was that they also proposed adding an additional step to each ESP classification while dropping the title of "head" in every classification. In other words, I would no longer be a head custodian. Instead, I would now be a custodian who had reached the maximum level of the salary scale.

That offer didn't sound bad to most of our negotiating team because that would allow them to move up one more level on the salary scale. Deb Deal, our local president and head negotiator, saw things in a different light. She is also a custodian at my school. She explained to the board's team that my 25 years of experience was invaluable. She said that whenever there is a question about the location of an ancient underground drain line, or a problem with an obscure electrical switch or our antique boiler, they rarely consult a blueprint or instruction booklet.

Instead, they call me because I was likely there when the problems first occurred back in the Dark Ages. Deal believed that this institutional insight was worth something, so she proposed a stipend be added to my salary for my years of experience and accumulated knowledge.

No Title, No Stipend

The school board's team considered the proposal, but feared that this would cause a stampede when others too entered their dinosaur age. Their proposal stood as presented, take it or leave it. Our team felt they had the best offer they would get and signed an agreement. After two weeks, it received a unanimous vote by both parties. I voted for it too.

The fact that my position of head custodian was taken away from me without my knowledge or consent was a slap in the face. The fact that the school board apparently sees no difference between six and 25 years of experience still sours me somewhat.

But a contract is for the benefit of everyone. While me and future veterans might have been the losers here, the majority of our ESP brothers and sisters benefit from the new contract. I learned the hard way that most anything you have at work can be taken away with the stroke of a pen. Guess I'll just deposit this new tidbit into my institutional knowledge bank account.

(Dave Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association, is a custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in Southern Illinois. He can be contacted at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.