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School staffing report adds fuel to WI partisan fires

By   /   April 18, 2012  /   No Comments

By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — A report on school-staffing cuts is doing little to quell the ongoing debate over whether Wisconsin’s education system is faring better or worse after last year’s budget cuts and collective-bargaining changes.

Both sides found support for their arguments in the state Department of Public Instruction’s annual report on school districts’ staffing released Wednesday. 

Wisconsin school districts cut 2,312 positions for this school year, a 50 percent jump in staff losses from the previous year, according to DPI.

Of those, 60 percent — 1,446 positions — were teachers.

The campaign for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who hopes to be the Democratic candidate facing Gov. Scott Walker in the June recall election, blasted the staff cuts in an email titled “Walker’s Ideological Civil War Delivers Blow to Education in Wisconsin.”

The two-year state budget passed by the Republican-led Legislature cut $749 million in general school aid.

“The consequences of gutting education are clear: larger class sizes, reductions in academic and extra-curricular offerings, and an overall decline in the quality of education in Wisconsin,” Barrett said in a statement.

Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie had a different take. The Milwaukee, Kenosha and Janesville school districts that cut more than 586 of those teaching positions signed teaching contracts before last year’s collective bargaining changes passed. Act 10 requires teachers and other state workers to contribute more to their pensions and health-care plans.

Because those three districts signed contracts before Act 10 took effect, those employees were not required to pay more toward their pensions and health plans.
Walker said those bargaining changes were intended to give school districts the financial flexibility necessary to deal with budget cuts.

“Governor Walker’s reforms led to the least number of school districts increasing class sizes in the past decade, the smallest reduction in extracurricular activities in the last decade and less student fee increases than any other year in the last decade,” Werwie said in a statement. “The reason there can still be smaller class sizes is simply because some school districts are finally able to make fundamental reforms to improve education and put the student’s needs first.” 

Werwie did not respond to a question asking whether the governor believed school districts were overstaffed in previous years.

Officials from Milwaukee, Kenosha and several other school districts did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
Andrew Reschovsky, a education funding expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said these reports and similar surveys tend to be a game of political football.
But he warned against reading too much about school-quality from basic data.
Each school district is unique, he said, and that may affect staffing levels, he said. The districts may have had an increase in enrollment or an influx of special needs students, larger class sizes or mass staff retirements, he said.
One school district may have several retirements and replace those teachers with new educators, Reschovsky said. That may affect quality of education, but the district’s staff level would be the same year to year.
“With just the staffing numbers, I don’t think you can say much of any interest,” he said.