A Simple Approach to Ending the State Budget Standoff

Here’s an idea for resolving the state’s budget repair bill crisis.  Governor Walker’s budget repair bill is designed to eviscerate public employee unions.  But with a few changes it could actually lead to an innovative and productive way of addressing the legitimate concerns with the collective bargaining process, while preserving the most important rights of teachers and other public employees.

Background: A Tale of Two Unions  

First, some background that highlights the two sides of the issue for me as a member of the Madison School Board.  Early on Friday morning, February 25, our board approved a contract extension with our AFSCME bargaining units, which include our custodians and food service workers.  The agreement equips the school district with the flexibility to require the AFSCME workers to make the contributions toward their retirement accounts and any additional contributions toward their health insurance costs that are required by the budget repair bill, and also does not provide for any raises.  But the agreement does preserve the other collective bargaining terms that we have arrived at over the years and that have generally worked well for us. 

AFSCME has stated that its opposition to the Governor’s bill is not about the money, and our AFSCME bargaining units have walked that talk. 

Our recent dealings with MTI, the union representing our teachers and some other bargaining units, have been less satisfying.  Because of teacher walk outs, we have to make up the equivalent of four days of school.  An obvious way to get started on this task would be to declare Friday, February 25, which has been scheduled as a no-instruction day so that teachers can attend the Southern Wisconsin Educational Inservice Organization (SWEIO) convention, as a regular school day. 

The complication is that, pursuant to the terms of our collective bargaining agreement with MTI, we have to bargain with the union over the school calendar.  MTI has to agree to our plans to make up the lost school time brought about by the walk outs of its members.  Despite our best efforts, we were not able to reach agreement with MTI on using Friday as a make-up day.  So, we can’t do it, even though everyone seems to think it’s a good idea. 

Defining the Issue:  Too Much of a Good Thing

This illustrates the downside of the collective bargaining process.  Sure, teachers like being able to determine the school calendar through their union’s bargaining, but they’re not marching around the Capitol to safeguard this right – they’re fighting for much more important protections.  But even in the current environment, we are unable to reach a timely agreement with MTI.  As a consequence, a sensible first step toward making up missed time is rendered impossible, by the passage of time if not by MTI’s bargaining strategy.

We want to preserve important collective bargaining rights because our teachers and other employees deserve that.  But I would also like to see an adjustment to the balance in the collective bargaining process so that our unions no longer have veto power over aspects of the operations of our schools that don’t directly implicate the rights they are fighting so hard to save.

A Possible Solution: Recalibrate the Balance and then Bargain Away  

I think there may be a way to do this that is actually pretty simple.  It would require two changes to the Governor’s bill.  The first has already been proposed by Republican State Senator Dale Schultz.  It is to add a sunset date of June 30, 2013, the end of the biennium, for the collective bargaining provisions.   They would no longer apply after that date.  The second is to change the initial applicability date for the collective bargaining provisions to July 1, 2011, the start of the biennium.    

As a consequence of these two changes, public employee unions would have four months to reach agreements with their school boards or other municipal employers on the terms of a two-year collective bargaining agreement that would carry them through the biennium.  (For ease of reference, I’m simply going to refer to the public employers as school districts for the rest of this post.)  At this point, it seems a given that any such agreements would include the type of employee contributions to their retirement accounts and toward a great share of their health insurance costs that are in the current bill. 

If an agreement is in place on July 1, 2011, the date the restrictive collective bargaining provisons would become law under this approach, the provisions would not become effective for those bargaining parties until the existing agreement expires.  If the parties are unable to strike a deal by July 1, then the unions essentially lose their collective bargaining agreements for two years, and then would have to bargain an agreement from scratch.

The Upshot: Preserving the Wheat and Discarding the Chaff

The school district would have quite a bit of bargaining leverage in these negotiations, given the unacceptable consequences to the union if no agreement can be reached.  This should enable school districts to prune their agreements down to the terms that are essential for the parties and critical for the union. 

For example, I’d imagine such an agreement would contain a grievance procedure and other protections against arbitrary or unfair disciplinary or other employer actions.  But there would be no need for a provision that requires bargaining over the school calendar, for example.  The school district could simply refuse to include such a provision in the agreement, and ultimately there would seem to be little the union could do to compel its inclusion.  The new agreements might also include the kind of innovative teacher evaluation and performance pay approaches that WEAC recently endorsed.   

Part of the current problem is that many collective bargaining agreements are simply overgrown.  Our agreement with MTI is 179 pages.  There is no need for many of the current terms of our agreement.  They pose an impediment to effective management with little compensating benefit for the teachers.

But given the bargaining dynamic, there is no effective way to deal with these unnecessary provisions.  The school district can propose in bargaining that the provisions be eliminated, but the union will resist.  The school district will eventually determine that it is not worth pursuing the point in bargaining because the union will seek to extract too expensive or burdensome a concession in order to agree to the elimination.  So the agreements end up getting overgrown with bargaining kudzu that eventually chokes the efficiency of the organization. 

The sort of re-set of collective bargaining I envision would be a way to cut through all that and start over again.  It would create an opportunity to negotiate an agreement that provides the collective bargaining protections that are most important for teachers while positioning the school district to innovate and more effectively equip our students with 21st century skills in a reasonably efficient manner.  

Once collective bargaining resumes in July, 2013, the starting point for negotiations would be the slimmed-down agreements the parties had reached to carry them through the biennium.  There would likely be a need to reclassify some issues as permissive rather than mandatory subjects of bargaining, so that the integrity of the new agreements could be maintained.  The new agreements would then define the terms of negotiation going forward.   

With Bargaining Power Comes Bargaining Responsibility

Does this approach give the employers too much power?  I don’t think so, though my view is undoubtedly tainted by my management position. 

As has frequently been pointed out, it matters that the employers are elected officials.  They are obligated to represent their communities, which include their public employees and all the union members in their district.  Their obligation is to be prudent stewards of the public purse but also to treat their employees fairly.  If the sense of the community is that an elected official is attempting to overplay his or her hand, to the detriment of the public employees of the district, then that sense can find expression at the ballot box.  To borrow a phrase, this is what democracy looks like.

Similarly, if a school board does not take advantage of the opportunity this approach would present and does not insist on sensible and meaningful changes in its collective bargaining agreement, the voters are likely to take note of that as well, as they should.     

To provide some incentive for school districts to reach agreements, I think the provision in the Governor’s bill that authorizes public employers to fire striking workers should be stricken from the legislation.  If a school district isn’t willing to strike a deal, it shouldn’t be immune from the sorts of weapons that workers have traditionally used to bring some pressure to bear for negotiations and compromise.

Let 400 Collective Bargaining Agreements Bloom

The advantage of this approach is that for the next two years, Wisconsin would be a laboratory of democracy.  There are more than 400 school districts in the state, and so the potential for 400 different approaches to striking an appropriate balance in a collective bargaining agreement. 

Each approach would amount to a natural experiment.  One district may decide it wants as little to do with teachers unions as possible, and will refuse to enter into any agreement, thereby triggering application of the draconian provisions of the budget repair bill.  We can all see how that works out for them.  Another district, like Madison, may pursue a bargaining strategy informed by the view that being perceived as a district that values its teachers and gives them a fair shake creates a competitive advantage.   We’ll be able to see whether that approach pays off.

We ought to be able to figure out a way to resolve the current standoff in the Capitol.  If there are enough legislators who would like to bring an end to our unedifying political cage match, this approach points a way forward that would improve our schools while preserving the most important collective bargaining rights of teachers and all public employees.

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5 Responses to A Simple Approach to Ending the State Budget Standoff

  1. Patrick Lenon says:

    Ed, thank you for your insights.

    In discussion with folks on both sides of this issue, I’ve pointed out that before Scott Walker came along, MTI (personified by John Matthews) was probably the least popular organization in Dane County, and that unions in general were naturally declining. Certainly the CBE has been an albatross around the neck of the school managers.

    However, I also point out that without collective bargaining, there IS no CBE, and EVERYthing is negotiable. The baby goes out with the bathwater. It could be a laboratory for democracy as you suggest, or it could be educational chaos.

    Overall, your “wheat and chaff” point of view has a great deal of merit and I think that’s where we’d get to if we had a negotiation process, or in my wildest dreams, an arbitrary mediator. How is it the National Football League can mediate their labor problems, and the state of Wisconsin can’t?

  2. Larry winkler says:

    I have a different perspective on the issues.

    Unions are limited to bargaining on wages, benefits, and working conditions. The real issues that teachers are concerned with are not bargainable and are management prerogatives. Thus, the issues you cite are really proxies for the substantive issues.

    My brief history discussing or attempting to discuss the issues with Matthews and the rest when I ran for school board showed me they had little clue, and this went way over the heads of many of the MMSD board members at the time.

    Teachers are professionals and it is imperative that educational decisions not be dictated by the board or administration. Generally, educational fads of the month are pushed down and teachers are successful more often than not, not because of policies handed down from on high but in spite of them.

    This is not to say teachers and other education majors misinformation and miseducation don’t also contribute. For that I fully blame schools of education.

  3. mamaraby says:

    I appreciate your reasoned response which not only finds a way into the messy middle, but also admits that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach that can be legislated form on high. You show the level-headed sense of leadership that I wish our current Governor had.

  4. Neal M. Jewels says:

    Ed, with sincerest respect for your positions and experience, I nevertheless would find myself in opposition to your core premises for various reasons:

    1. First; Senator Schultz’ proposal would amount to nothing more than a temporary band-aid on a long festering wound that requires extensive surgery for proper healing. To simply put a two year moratorium on collective bargaining is a short term fix on a long term problem. Unless he is talking about scrapping all existing collective bargaining agreements (which I do not believe is legally permissible) and starting from scratch in two years, the heretofore merry-go-round of bargaining impasse resolution via mediation, arbitration, comparables, quid pro quos, etc. would be resurrected and eventually lead us full circle to where we are today.

    2. Your second proposition holds more water but also does not account for existing agreements. I also am presuming from the tenor of your proposition that there would be no mediation/arbitration employable by the parties in attempting to achieve such an agreement within the four month time frame. The problem I would have is what comes afterward when full collective bargaining rights are restored. As you say: The new agreements would then define the terms of negotiation going forward. But, if mediation/arbitration within its current dynamics is restored, what happens if historical comparables have been more benevolent or generous in their dealings with similar employee groups? Isn’t much of what was originally accomplished put into jeopardy?

    3. I personally do not agree that public employees should ever have the right to strike under any circumstances. Public service is just that, and it is distinctive from the profit driven theology of the private sector. The withholding of services from taxpayers who have no direct say in the dynamics giving rise to such an action is wrong. Public service employees who find their working conditions or remuneration to be so oppressive as to warrant such action either need to educate the voting public and get more reasonable people elected, or move on.

    My own proposition for a compromise on this matter would be that the Governor’s bill be passed in its current form, but with an additional amendment that general municipal employees (which would include teachers) would be allowed to bargain a voluntary (no mediation/arbitration) agreement covering non-economic terms and conditions of employment upon authorization via a referendum vote of the respective municipal employer electorate. This would allow for the budgetary considerations and flexibilities that the Governor is seeking while permitting public employees to make their case why the proposed civil service protections are inadequate to address their needs. In the end the ultimate arbiter on the matter would be who it should be — the affected taxpayers.

    Unfortunately; I believe that all of this discussion is an exercise in wishful thinking. We seem to have reached the inevitable end game where bravado and face-saving have become paramount to constructive compromise.

  5. Susan Lochen says:

    Not bad, Ed. You have some good ideas for the short term resolution of this crisis. I hope you can get somebody at MTI to work with you.

    But you lost me at “innovative teacher evaluation and performance pay” and quite frankly I think Mary Bell is just kissing up to Arne Duncan on this one.

    There simply is no instrument, nor will there ever be, that can reliably measure “teacher performance” with a single child or a classroom of kids. Too much interferes with the degree of reliability required to accurately and fairly reward one teacher over another. We might like to think we can assign numbers and ranks and statistics to our every experience in this life. We can’t. Numbers can woefully misrepresent what’s actually going on, take it from an old math teacher. Student test scores have almost nothing to do with teacher performance. I’m sure that sounds crazy, especially in the context of a business model. But it is nonetheless true.

    Education is not a business, it’s as simple as that. We are humans molding very complicated other little humans who are not with us most of the time. There is simply no way of knowing or predicting when our “effectiveness” will be made manifest in that child. It could be that year, but it might not be til next year. Or the next. It might not even be til that student is long gone from school. What instrument, what “student achievement test” can measure, with any accuracy, WHEN that student learned what he has now “achieved”. WHO should be rewarded? Some of our best teachers are willing to work with struggling learners. How in the world will their successes ever be rewarded? “Student improvement” is ethereal at best. It can show up one day and hide itself the next for a myriad of reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with a teacher. You cannot measure any of these improvements on a scale small enough to reward specific teachers and not others. At best, you can describe a school climate or whole district success and even then with only the broadest of brushes.

    Yes, there will be numbers and graphs galore to look at. And they will be utterly beside the point.

    I’m sorry, but the ONLY way to evaluate and optimize teacher performance is with good old-fashioned observation and mentoring. It’s long, subjective and messy, but ultimately, it’s the ONLY way to be fair. For the struggling teacher, continued, frequent review by supervisors and peers, followed by advice and support, may improve things. For the bad apples, most often they create enough of their own misery that they leave the profession. Others may be weeded out by increasing pressures to improve by supervisors and peers.

    Good luck with the contract stuff. But don’t complicate it with this business-model merit-pay baloney. Really Ed, the effective teachers that you say want to attract and keep are above the kinds of petty, competitive exercises for “sales commissions” you need to keep a sales staff happy in the business world. They would rather collaborate and mentor like the professionals they are. Tell Mary and Arne to take their act down the road.

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