It’s been a non-quiet week here in Madison. Everyone has his or her own take on the events. Since I’m a member of the Madison School Board, mine is necessarily a management perspective. Here’s what the week’s been like for me.
Nearly as soon as the governor’s budget repair bill was released last Friday, I had a chance to look at a summary and saw what it did to collective bargaining rights. Basically, the bill is designed to gut public employee unions, including teacher unions. While it does not outlaw such unions outright, it eliminates just about all their functions.
Our collective bargaining agreement with MTI is currently about 165 pages, which I think is way too long. If the bill passes, our next collective bargaining agreement can be one paragraph — way, way, way too short.
On Monday, Board members collaborated on a statement condemning the legislation and the rush to push it through. All Board members signed the statement on Monday evening and it was distributed to all MMSD staff on Tuesday.
Also on Tuesday, as protests started to build, we received word that most of East High’s students had walked out of class and were peacefully marching down East Washington to join the protest at the Capitol.
(By the way, I think we’re all pretty proud of our high school students these days, what with the West sit-in in October and the general seriousness of purpose most of our protesting students from East and the other high schools have shown this week. We’re worried that we don’t teach civics in a more formal way in our high schools, but somehow many of our students seem to have picked up the concepts.)
Also on Tuesday, we began getting word that in order to join the protest our teachers might be calling in sick on Wednesday in such numbers that we wouldn’t be able to keep our schools open.
This concerned me. While I certainly understand our teachers’ motivation, the District has an obligation, for which I and fellow Board members are ultimately responsible, to keep our schools open.
I also thought that a general sick-in was contrary to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement between the District and MTI. Here is what the collective bargaining agreement says:
The Board of Education and MTI subscribe to the principle that differences of opinion between the parties should be resolved by the peaceful means available without interruption of the school program.
Therefore, MTI agrees that there will not be any strikes, workstoppages or slow downs during the life of this Agreement, i.e., for the period commencing July 1, 2009 and ending June 30, 2011. Upon the notification of the President and Executive Director of MTI by the President of the Board of Education of the Madison Metropolitan School District of any unauthorized concerted activity, as noted above, MTI shall notify those in the collective bargaining unit that it does not endorse such activity. Having given such notification, MTI shall be freed of all liability in relation thereto.
The Board of Education agrees that it will not lock-out collective bargaining unit members during the period specified above.
I view this as prohibiting teacher work-stoppages, which is what we’ve had for the last three days. The collective bargaining agreement is still in force and, no matter what, will remain in force through the end of June. The teachers are understandably concerned about their collective bargaining rights, but to my mind their actions amounted to ignoring their obligations under the agreement that is the fruit of their exercising those rights.
(MTI disagrees – it contends that the only joint action the agreement prohibits are ones that grow out of “differences of opinion between the parties” and that the union is protesting about its disagreements with the governor, not the school district. I am not persuaded, but I won’t go into why here.)
On Wednesday, I was ready to authorize the district to seek a temporary restraining order against MTI that prohibited the organization from encouraging or facilitating joint actions that result in school closures. I never viewed this as punitive. I can respect protesting actions that amount to civil disobedience, but those actions draw significance from the actors’ willingness to accept the consequences of their behavior. You do the deed, you pay the fine. So I don’t have a problem with imposing appropriate sanctions for protests (like docking pay) and I don’t view that as expressing any sort of negative value judgment on the protest.
The Board had an emergency meeting at noon on Wednesday. I think everyone was aware of how fluid the situation was and how tentative our decisions would be. Without going into the details of the closed session discussion, the upshot was that the district did not commence legal action against MTI or take any other formal steps against our teachers.
The Board held another emergency meeting on Thursday at noon. My perspective had changed a bit from where it had been on Wednesday. At this point, Joint Finance had approved the budget repair bill and it looked like it was going to be approved in the Senate and Assembly quite quickly, perhaps that day. It looked like our teachers were in the process of being steamrolled and I didn’t feel like piling on. It also looked like the legislative battle would soon be coming to an end, which also figured into my thinking.
Thursday afternoon, it was reported on the MTI website that at the Thursday meeting, the Board had voted unanimously that it would not take any punitive actions against teachers (other than docking pay for missing work), so long as they returned to work on Monday.
This was irritating. We don’t discuss publicly what happens in our closed sessions (an obligation I’m trying to honor in this post), but someone apparently did, and the message that MTI then conveyed was not accurate. In light of the rapidly evolving situation, all of our decisions had pretty explicitly been “for this day only” and did not imply any commitments or limitations affecting what we may decide to do later, after the situation had changed some more.
However, other than docking the missing teachers’ pay, I personally am distinctly disinclined to impose any other sort of discipline on our protesting teachers. My views could change on Monday, though.
The Facebook posting was an irritant because this has been a very challenging situation for the Board. We’re walking a fine line. We understand what our teachers are going through as they see their profession and livelihoods threatened. Our teachers aren’t just our employees. They’re also our friends and neighbors and the lifeblood of our organization. It bothers me and I know it bothers other Board members when we see the Governor and his supporters beating up on our teachers in order to further what I consider to be a radical ideological agenda of union-busting. We want to be as supportive as we can. But our first obligation is to our students. We need to have our schools open.
To get through this minefield relatively intact, we need to have clear lines of communication with MTI and both sides have to be respectful of the others’ position even when we can’t agree. While it may not have been intended, I thought the Facebook posting regarding the Board’s decision was an unnecessary and unhelpful deviation from that approach, and it was made worse for me when MTI later explained the inaccurate information by saying it was a communication problem between the Board and the superintendent.
On Friday, the 14 Dem Senators had lit off for the territories (or Illinois, at least) and the legislative steamroller had been slowed down. By Friday, my patience with the school closings had pretty much run out. We have thousands of students who aren’t being taught, thousands of breakfasts and lunches that aren’t being served to hungry children, lots of parents at wit’s end. We’re going to have to figure out some way to make up the classroom time, and it won’t be pretty. (Someone asked me the other day how many days we’ll be giving off for the 4th of July break.)
The Board had decided that if MTI was unable or unwilling to give us assurances that our teachers would be back teaching on Monday, we would go to court seeking an injunction against MTI for its role in what we considered the unauthorized job action. As I understand it, MTI communicated that the teachers would be back Tuesday but had no assurances for Monday, and so the district went forward with the legal action on Friday afternoon.
It took some time to find a judge who could hear the motion, but Judge Sumi took the matter on late Friday afternoon. I went over to the hearing after work, but by the time I got there the hearing was over. I ran into Lester Pines (MTI’s attorney), John Matthews, Mike Lipp and a few others as they were leaving the courtroom.
Lester explained that Judge Sumi had denied the temporary injunction because the District had not demonstrated a likelihood of ultimate success on the merits that the joint action amounted to an illegal strike against the district rather than a coordinated protest against the governor.
Judge Sumi scheduled the matter for a full evidentiary hearing at 8:15 am on Monday morning. The point of the motion was to get our schools open on Monday. MTI says the schools will be open on Tuesday. It may not make a lot of sense to have a full hearing on Monday when it seems unlikely to accomplish anything in terms of school closures.
So, as of Saturday morning, that’s where we are. Big props to superintendent Dan Nerad and his staff who have been working round-the-clock and have responded to challenges big and small with patience, good sense and grace.
I plan to go to the rally at the Capitol today, just as I have for the past several days. When I run into friends who are teachers at the rally – and I will – I’ll tell them that I sure hope they’re back at school Monday.
By the way, I went to the Capitol last night. This was my favorite sign:
We are blessed with a wonderfully supportive community. We’ve received many emails from parents who express support for the teachers and who say they are willing to put up with the inconvenience of school closings so that the teachers can be at the Capitol working to protect their rights. (We have also received many emails with distinctly different messages.)
I respect the sentiments that these parents express. But we have lots and lots of students who don’t have the same support networks and who don’t have good options when they can’t be at school. These students can least afford missing school (and I know that no one feels worse about that or more torn about the situation than our teachers). And there are many parents with who have work responsibilities that simply can’t accommodate the kinds of inconveniences that the school closings cause.
I also have to say that I don’t know why it is important for the teachers to be at the Capitol during the morning and early afternoon on Monday. The Assembly won’t be back in session until Tuesday, at which time they’ll start considering many proposed Democratic amendments to the bill. Nothing will happen in the Senate until the Democrats return to the chamber and I don’t think anyone is predicting that that will occur on Monday.
I don’t want to believe that the primary if not exclusive reason our schools may not be open on Monday, and our students will be on their own yet again, is because an MTI labor leader promised some other labor leader that that is what would happen. We’re all trying our best to get through this. I don’t want to feel like I’m being played for a sucker, a chump or a marionette.
We need to be open on Monday. Our schools, our students, and yes, our teachers all deserve that. Let’s figure it out.
UPDATE – Sunday evening. For reasons that I do not understand, MTI announced that teachers will not report tomorrow (Monday), even though neither the Assembly or Senate will be in session. Our 24,000+ students will miss another day of learning. I’ll just say that I am very disappointed.