FAQs on the New Teacher Collective Bargaining Agreement

After a marathon bargaining session that lasted from Friday morning into early Saturday morning, the school district and MTI, our teachers union, settled on the terms  of a two-year collective bargaining agreement for our teachers and four other bargaining units that will take effect on July 1.  As is true for most negotiations, the terms of the final agreement varied considerably from the parties’ initial offers (discussed in my previous post).  The school board ratified the agreement on Saturday and MTI membership voted to approve the pacts today, Sunday.

Here are some frequently asked questions about the agreement along with my responses.

What is your reaction to the settlement?

I have a sense of satisfaction that we were able to get a deal done that strikes a reasonable balance between, on the one hand, the needs of our school district and our property tax payers and, on the other, the strong interest of our teachers in maintaining the key protections that the collective bargaining agreement affords them.

I certainly do not feel elated that we just did our part in the Governor’s state-wide project to extract about a billion dollars out of the take-home pay of Wisconsin’s teachers over the next two years.  More than ever, we are indebted to our teachers for their commitment and dedication during these very dispiriting times.

I think we did what we had to do under the circumstances and arrived at the kind of result that our community wants.

Why the rush?

Any new contract has to be agreed upon and ratified prior to the effective date of the budget repair bill, which will be one day after the publication of the bill.  On Friday morning, it appeared possible that publication of the bill could occur as early as that day, which meant any new contract would have to be finalized that day as well.

Later in the day, Secretary of State Doug LaFollette said that he did not intend to publish the bill immediately, and this reduced the time pressure a bit.

However, the dynamic of bargaining is such that once the likely contours of a possible agreement come into view, the parties will often push hard to keep going until an agreement can be reached.  That’s what happened here.

How do the economic terms of the settlement compare with the provisions of the recently-enacted legislation?

Overall, the impact on salary levels, retirement contributions, and employee contributions to health insurance is roughly comparable.

Salaries: The agreement imposes a salary freeze for the two-year period but permits advancement across tracks and levels. This means that the salary structure remains the same, but if an employee qualifies for a higher-pay category as a result of an additional year of experience or the attainment of, e.g., a master’s degree, the employee’s salary will increase accordingly.

Under the recent legislation, salaries can increase no more than a percentage equal to the increase in the consumer price index.  I don’t know what, if anything, the legislation does to advancement across tracks and levels.

The salary provisions are said to save $1.9 million each of the two years of the contract, compared to the assumptions in the school district’s modeling that have been used to develop our budget projections for the upcoming biennium.

Retirement:  Teachers are required to pay 50% of the total annual contribution to their Wisconsin Retirement System (WRS) account.  This is the same as the requirement under the new law.  It should save the District about $11 million per year.

Health insurance: In year one, the district can require increased contributions toward the cost of health insurance, with projected savings to the District of about $1.7 million.  In year two, the school district can cease offering the option of WPS insurance and instead increase the number of HMO offerings.  Premium contributions can be 10% of the cost of the policy.   The savings attributable to this change could be $5.7 million.

The new state law provisions regarding contributions toward health insurance do not apply to the school district because our health insurance is not offered through the Public Employers Group Health Insurance plan. However, the new state law generally calls for the employer contribution toward the cost of health insurance to be capped at 88% of the cost of the least-cost option.

The terms of our agreement do not vary from this too much, if we assume that the cost of the various HMO options offered in year two will be fairly close.  The district’s share of the cost would be 90% of the cost of the policy, rather than the 88% called for in the legislation.

What about the non-economic terms of the agreement?

Among other changes, the district was able to obtain some modifications to the definition of the school day in the new agreement that I am told will increase our flexibility in helpful ways.  We were also able to arrive at a reasonable agreement on making up the time lost during the four days our schools were closed as a result of the protests.

Don’t the beneficial components of the new contract vindicate Governor Walker’s insistence on the changes incorporated in the new legislation?

There is no question that the new legislation substantially recalibrates the balance between employers and employees in a way that favors employers.  As a result, the school district had considerably more leverage on Friday than in previous bargaining and was able to make use of this leverage to gain concessions regarding, for example, the definition of the work day that the district believes are beneficial.

But there was no need to end collective bargaining and eviscerate public employee unions in order to effect this shift in relative bargaining power.  The same goal could have been achieved through changes in the criteria that determine the outcomes of arbitration, for example.

Greatly restricting the collective bargaining process is counterproductive, as this weekend’s bargaining proves.

We are facing very difficult and rapidly-changing circumstances that adversely affect our teachers.  As a result of bargaining, leaders for the school district and for the teachers were able to come together, talk through the situation, and work out a deal that adjusted our bargaining agreement to accommodate the new realities.

The process was relatively swift and relatively cordial and led to a reasonable result. Our concerns are lessened that teachers unhappy with the situation will take actions to express their displeasure that would adversely affect teaching and learning.  From a management perspective, we have the benefit of being able to say to unhappy teachers that this is a very tough situation but a reasonable deal under the circumstances, as evidenced by the fact that your leadership recommended it and union membership approved it (very reluctantly, as I realize).  We are able to diffuse responsibility for the outcome to some extent rather than bear the entire responsibility ourselves.  Why in the world would we want to get rid of this process?

You certainly can’t point to this result reached through collective bargaining as vindication for an approach that effectively abolishes collective bargaining. Nevertheless, unless the law changes, Friday’s negotiations marked the last substantial collective bargaining session ever between the school district and MTI.

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4 Responses to FAQs on the New Teacher Collective Bargaining Agreement

  1. TJ Mertz says:

    Ed

    I heard there were some big changes decreasing Elementary Planning Time. Is this true? ( if not, please ignore the following and forgive my ignorance) What was the rationale there? Will this improve the eduction of of our students? I’ve heard teachers speak often about the importance of planning time but i’ve never eard the management case against it

    I’m also curious if any attempt was made to keep the pension and insurance contributions as is, but do equivalent pay cuts, and thereby keeping this money from being taxable income.

    • TJ –

      As far as I know, there was no discussion of reducing salary levels in lieu of requiring increase employee contributions to benefits.

      Here is what I understand about planning time. Currently, elementary school teachers have 5.5 hours of planning times each week. 4.5 hours is provided during the school day. One hour is labeled as team planning time and can take place during Monday afternoon after the early release of students. I’m told the Monday afternoon team planning time has been used on kind of a hit-or-miss basis. Some schools do a great job with it; others not so much.

      The early-release Monday afternoons were intended for collaborative work among teachers, but there has been no way for the administration or principals to compel a school’s teachers to participate in whatever activities are planned for the Monday afternoons.

      As a result of this weekend’s agreement, there are two changes to this arrangement. First, the team planning time is moved from Monday afternoon to any other afternoon during the week after classes are over and before the end of the teachers’ day at 4:15.

      Second, the district and school principals were given more authority to plan for the use of Monday early-release time. The following provision is added to the collective bargaining agreement:

      “The use of Monday Early Release time will be determined collaboratively at the building level between the principal and the leadership team each spring for the following school year. If a decision regarding the use of Monday Early Release time cannot be reached by May 1st, the principal may decide how such time will be used. Monday Early Release time will be used for educational purposes including, but not limited to, professional development, parent-teacher conference, individual planning time, data analysis, progress monitoring, team planning, staff meetings, analyzing student work and problem solving.”

      Teachers will be expected to attend whatever activities are planned for early-release time at their schools. There was no change to the 4.5 hours of planning time per week that is provided to elementary school teachers during the school day when students are present.

  2. Mike Schwaegerl says:

    Based on my long experience, teachers will guard their planning time my whatever means at their disposal. In my time, principals at all levels were constantly nibbling at that planning time, more so at the elementary level than at the secondary. In fact, for all 40 years of my time, and apparently 10 years after my retirement, the same thing is happening. Teachers are not “meeting” people. They do all right with team meetings, but administrative meetings are often greeted with loud groans. For upper level bureaucrats, meetings are their bread and butter. They love agendas and written reports which they gladly produce and consume. Teachers normally have 30 students waiting for them, papers to grade and record, parents to call, referrals to write, and such like. Please make sure that your principals go easy.

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