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WI: Milwaukee teachers could have saved city schools, themselves

By   /   June 18, 2012  /   News  /   No Comments

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — The dark fiscal clouds are starting to lighten in Wisconsin’s largest school district.

But Milwaukee Public Schools‘ fiscal picture could be a lot brighter, had its teachers’ union chosen to open up its labor contract with MPS and agree to some salary concessions.

Tweaking the deal could have saved scores of positions, opening up the opportunity for more teachers in the classroom, more programs to bolster the academic achievement of a school system that has seen its share of failure, and perhaps offering relief to Milwaukee taxpayers.

Life is all about choices, and the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association opted to reject concessions and keep what it had earned through its 2010 negotiations with the district.

Beginning in July 2013, however, if the law that redefined public-sector collective bargaining in Wisconsin holds, Milwaukee’s teachers will be operating under a new system, and the district and its taxpayers are expected to see pronounced savings.

They said, no, no, no

In April, the MTEA overwhelmingly rejected a plan that asked teachers to give back five day’s pay to help the school system reduce the size of its overcrowded classrooms.

Of 3,931 members to vote, 2,296 opposed the measure.

MTEA leadership and MPS had asked the state Legislature for permission to reopen the existing contract, which runs through June 2013, to the opposition of teachers unions in Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha and Racine.

The Legislature granted the request, but Milwaukee teachers, who have long asserted that the education of the district’s children must be everyone’s top priority, killed the proposal.

In essence, the teachers would have given up much of their 3-percent raise in the coming school year. MPS has estimated that average teacher base salary next year will be around $62,800.

Educators, on average, would have given back about $1,600 to the district.

Thanks to some earlier health-care concessions by the union, the district will realize about $19 million in savings under its 2012-13 budget. The better-than-expected revenue picture will bolster MPS’ commitment to art, musical and physical education, while boosting funding for costlier specialty programs and launching the movement toward high school reform, according to MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton.

The existing contract between MPS and its teachers was signed months before the Legislature passed changes to public-sector union collective bargaining.

“We’re not where we need to be but we’re making a significant down payment,” Thornton said in a statement following the Milwaukee Board of School’s passage of the $976-million budget earlier this month.

Michael Bonds, president of the Milwaukee School Board, said the existing contract “turned out to be a positive contract.” He said the health-care savings will save 75 to 100 jobs.

But as many as 300 more teaching positions remain on chopping block.

Bonds said many of those jobs could have been saved had teachers been willing to reopen the contract and give up some pay.

“I was very disappointed, because I’d been pushing them the longest,” said Bonds, a long-time professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, of the move to renegotiate.

Savings ahead

The board president pointed to some fiscal relief for the district and taxpayers in July 2013, when MPS’ 6,000-plus teachers begin paying for their pensions and more toward their health insurance premiums, in accordance with Wisconsin’s Act 10.

The collective bargaining reform law, pushed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker and approved by the GOP-controlled Legislature, stripped collective bargaining for most Wisconsin public sector employees.

Milwaukee Public Schools is expected to save about $170 million in pension costs during the next five years, and the district is projected to shave off about $1 billion of $2.2 billion in the cost of the unfunded liability during the next 30 years.

“We have stabilized the district’s finances. That would not have been possible without Act 10,” said Bonds, who noted his support of the law has not made him very popular among his colleagues in the school system.

Those projected savings due to Act 10, the board president said, have barely been mentioned in Milwaukee-area media.

“The paper (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) didn’t pick up on that. They wrote a little, small paragraph. If it was negative, it would have been a whole book,” Bonds said, asserting the district hasn’t gotten much attention or credit for cutting millions of dollars in transportation costs, shuttering failing schools and improving opportunities for minority students.

The savings to the district, through Act 10 has begun.

Roseann St. Aubin, MPS communications director, responded to Wisconsin Reporter’s request for information on existing and future savings, noting that the first 80 exempt staff, not covered under the teachers’ contract, contributed to their pensions in the 2011-12 school year. Those contributions saved an estimated $2.4 million.

In a couple of weeks, about 3,000 employees, nearly one-third of the district’s approximately 9,500-member workforce, will begin contributing to their public pensions, saving MPS an estimated $7.7 million. Those employees include food service workers, tradespeople, non-licensed staff, substitute teachers and part-time recreation staff. Many of the employees earn considerably less than teachers.

St. Aubin did not provide figures on how much the district expects to save when teachers begin contributing to pensions next year, but some of the savings will result from the school board’s decision to freeze supplemental pensions for teachers and end it for new hires.

Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee’s teachers union, did not return a Wisconsin Reporter call seeking comment.

In his blog, Peterson claims teachers and educational workers throughout the country are “standing up for children and the teaching profession,” in part pointing to Milwaukee educators getting out the vote to in an attempt oust Walker in his recall election.

“Even though the grassroots organizing was unprecedented, Walker and his financial backers from around the country, survived the recall attempt,” Peterson writes.

The results of the recall election, Peterson said, have forced MTEA to “reimagine and reinvent” the union, moving from “collective bargaining to collective action,” and building “collaborative public schools that serve all students.”