Schools Put Reforms into Practice

Gibraltar and other Door County school districts are working on new employee handbooks which will incorporate changes brought about by last year’s Budget Repair Bill. Photo by Katie Sikora.

As this school year closes and students gear up for summer, teachers and administrators will begin tackling the implementation of the contract negotiation changes brought about by Scott Walker’s Budget Repair Bill, also known as Act 10.

The controversial budget-balancing bill, which curtailed public workers’ collective bargaining rights and sparked the march towards the June 5 recall election, was passed last year, but many of Door County’s school districts had teacher contracts that extended through to this year and the next.

Now that those contracts are nearing their expiration dates, school boards and superintendents are working to develop the employee handbooks that will effectively replace them.

The Gibraltar School District has contracts with its union-represented staff that run through June of 2013, but it is currently in the process of drafting its handbook. The intent of the document, says Gibraltar Superintendent Steve Seyfer, is not to redefine what it means to be an educator at Gibraltar, but to replace the union-negotiated contracts which will no longer exist.

“Today, we have a contract, and we have board policy and procedures and past practices,” says Seyfer. “So when the contract goes away….all those other policies are still in play.”

Some of the issues the handbook does touch on are salary, health and retirement benefits, work hours, leaves of absence, and employee grievances. Under Act 10, teachers’ unions can now only negotiate salaries, and there they can only bargain for a raise that does not exceed the current Consumer Price Index. Other aspects are left solely to the discretion of the school board.

There will be savings from Act 10, the majority of which will come from the change in public workers’ healthcare and retirement plans. All employees will have to pay 12.6 percent of their healthcare premiums, and many schools are moving to plans which require employees to pay a higher deductible. In addition, public workers are now expected to pay in for half of the pension funds they’ll receive upon retirement, rather than having districts cover the entirety of those costs.

Sturgeon Bay signed a contract with its unionized teachers that lasts through next school year, but in that contract the district instituted almost all of the changes that Act 10 requires. As a result, says Superintendent Joe Stutting, the district saved about $500,000.

Patricia Vickman, superintendent of the Southern Door district, says that the changes to the healthcare and retirement systems saved her district $409,444 this year.

But that money was saved at the expense of a lot of trust from teachers, many of whom had already been working with districts to trim the costs of education. In Southern Door, Gibraltar, and Sevastopol, for example, teachers agreed to increases in their healthcare contributions before the passage of Act 10 nullified their ability to collectively bargain.

“Bargaining at Gibraltar has worked over many bargains,” says Mark Honold, who has taught at Gibraltar for 34 years and currently serves as the head negotiator of the Gibraltar Education Association. “We have always come to a mutual agreement, which has contributed to the outstanding education students receive at Gibraltar.”

Sarah Brandt, Spanish teacher and head of the teachers’ union at Sevastopol, says that the lack of security which comes with the loss of collective bargaining is disconcerting and requires teachers to place a lot of faith in their school board.

“It gives the school a lot of leeway,” says Brandt. “Like when we start talking about base salary, the school can suddenly take whatever they’d like as the base salary and say that everyone is going to be there.”

Thankfully, Brandt says, the process at Sevastopol, which was scheduled to approve their handbook on June 11, has been far from acrimonious and hasn’t resulted in a number of surprises.

Gibraltar Schools Superintendent Steve Seyfer explained revisions to the school’s employee handbook at the last school board meeting on June 11. Photo by Katie Sikora.

All of Door County’s districts are working to include teachers in the process. Gibraltar, for example, has already held two open meetings at which employees were encouraged to voice their concerns regarding the district’s first passes at its handbook. Southern Door is also holding listening sessions to gather the opinions of its employees.

Ultimately, all decisions regarding the handbook will still be made by the school boards, but district administrators recognize that, while balancing their constantly more demanding budgets is important, cutting costs shouldn’t take precedence over their school’s ability to hire and retain quality educators.

“In Wisconsin, there are places that start new school teachers at under $30,000,” says Sevastopol Superintendent Steve Cromell. “If you start taking their benefits at the same time, you’re going to create an unhealthy pay-benefits system that’s not going to attract the best teachers.”

Stutting agrees with Cromell’s sentiment and believes that, while Act 10 will save districts some money, the overall problem of funding public education in Wisconsin is far from solved.

“Coming up, we’re looking at losing another $600,000 in state aid,” says Stutting. “And with the revenue limits [on property tax increases] still in place, we’ll have to run another referendum for a revenue limit override.”

Stutting says that he’s interested in seeing the next biennium budget, which is due in 2013 and will show where the state is headed in regards to education funding.

In the meantime, navigating the tricky waters of Act 10 will provide superintendents, school boards, and teachers with plenty to do.

“The rules are still in flux,” says Seyfer. “We’re going to see continued interpretation and court cases regarding Act 10. And as that happens, the applications to local school districts will continue to change.”