Gift Card, Anyone? The Anatomy of a Fiasco

Okay, so I screwed up.  Here’s how it happened.

I have been thinking over the time of my School Board service of ways we could do something to demonstrate our appreciation for the hard work and dedication of our teachers and staff.  I thought up – all by myself! — a proposal to do so that was unusual but made sense to me.

What I didn’t take into account was the degree of polarization about recent events in the community and the depth of the hostility many folks apparently feel toward our teachers as a result of their four-day walkout in February.  My proposal got framed up as an effort to reward the teachers for their walk-out.  Havoc generally ensued until I pulled the plug on the proposal just about 24 hours after I had first drafted it.

I had the idea Tuesday night, May 17.  On Wednesday, I made a couple of calls to check on a few points and wrote it up as a proposed amendment to the school district budget.

Here is how I described the proposal:

We have an unplanned surplus of approximately $1.2 million as a result of the four days schools were closed during February and the way that teachers and staff agreed to make up the lost time without adding additional days to the school year.

This amendment would utilize about $1,050,000 of this windfall to pay for $200 year-end bonuses to all staff, plus the additional taxes payable on the bonuses.

Our teachers and staff will be sustaining significant financial sacrifices in 2011-2012 as a result of the changes in the collective bargaining agreements.  If we are able to provide some unexpected funds for them this year, it seems like sound policy to do so

Consistent with the thinking behind the proposal for the creation of a defeasance escrow account, it is prudent to incur one-time expenses during this fiscal year.

I propose that the bonuses be provided in the form of $200 gift cards from Dane Buy Local, to be distributed near the end of this school year.  The cards are redeemable at local businesses.  I have spoken to a staff person at Dane Buy Local about their participating members partnering with us on this effort by encouraging participating businesses to provide special discounts to teachers and staff using the card as a way of demonstrating community support for the great work our teachers and staff perform.  I am confident that many local businesses would join in the promotion.

For those who have specific financial obligations for which they’d like to use the bonus money, I am told that arrangements can be made such that the cards could be used anywhere VISA cards are accepted.

In addition to the cards, I propose that we also pay the additional taxes teachers and staff will incur as a result of receiving the bonuses.

Here is how I described the proposal’s impact:

Staff would realize an increase in their 2010-2011 compensation.  Spending in local businesses would be encouraged, thereby benefiting the local economy.  Local businesses would be provided an opportunity to demonstrate in a tangible way the community’s appreciation of the dedication and hard work of our talented teachers and staff during challenging times.

I also drafted another amendment that, if the district is legally able to do so, we increase our proposed property tax levy by $1,983,051, or from $243,081,671 to $245,064,722, the level for this year. The thinking behind this one was that we shouldn’t let Governor Walker dictate our budget if we don’t have to and that holding the tax levy constant for next year seems reasonable.

After drafting the amendments, I sent them to my fellow Board members on Wednesday at 2:19 pm.  Here is the entire text of the email I sent:  “I am attaching two proposed budget amendments.”

At 3:55 pm, Matt DeFour of the State Journal called me to ask about my amendments.  I had no idea how he had the amendments, which I had sent only to fellow Board members. I asked Matt how he got them.  He said someone had put them on his desk, and then, quite appropriately, expressed a reluctance to reveal his sources.  Anyway, I answered Matt’s questions as best I could, but I could tell from the direction of the questions that the slant was going to be linking this proposal to the teachers’ walkout in February.

At about 6:18 pm on Wednesday, self-proclaimed School Board watchdog Don Severson sent out a blast email to whomever he sends such things, which he curiously cc’d the Board on, alerting his correspondents to both my amendments and urging them to contact the Board in opposition.  Don attached to his email Word versions of the two amendments.  Again, I don’t know how he got them.

Severson and others wasted no time in framing the idea as a daffy School Board proposal to reward those horrible teachers who walked off the job.  The right-wing echo chamber was activated and, Ka-boom!, I became the latest lefty, loony Madisonian.

Matt Defour’s article was the lead story  in the State Journal on Thursday morning.  The headline, “School board member wants to give some docked pay back to Madison teachers,” didn’t help in shaping public perception of my idea.

I got a call at home at about 6:20 in the morning from WIBA wanting me to talk on the air about the proposal.  I also got a request from a Milwaukee radio station, which I ignored.  I had work-related meetings starting at 7:30, and so was not closely tracking what was going on throughout the morning.  I was able to gather that all those sending us emails weren’t writing to congratulate me on my out-of-the-box thinking.

During the morning, I had an email exchange with Isthmus Daily Page’s David Blaska about my proposal, which he subsequently published.  (This may get me driven out of my near-east side home, but I confess that I tend to enjoy my occasional back-and-forths with Blaska, who I think does make the effort in his column to treat me fairly, at least by his lights.)

Thursday afternoon, Dan Nerad called.  In the nicest possible way, he suggested that I ought to pull the plug on the proposed amendment.  Once I realized the extent to which my idea was creating an unhelpful distraction, I agreed.  Starting at about 2:30 I began telling the reporters calling me that I was withdrawing the amendment.  At about 3:30, I sent an email to my fellow Board members to let them know.

We had a public hearing on our proposed budget Thursday at 5.  At the beginning of the hearing, I gave a statement explaining why I was withdrawing the proposal.  You can view it here.  (I have to learn to turn on the microphone when I’m talking.)  Here’s what I said:

My proposal has received far more attention than it probably deserves.

I think we need to do what we can to show appreciation for the hard work and dedication of our teachers and staff.  Regardless of the fate of my specific proposal, I certainly feel as deeply as ever about that.

Governor Walker has said that financially we should treat public employees more like private employees.  We’re doing that next year, by freezing wages, requiring employee contributions to retirement plans, and reducing health insurance options.  But it seems to me that this shouldn’t be a one-way street.  As a partner in a law firm, I am a small business employer.  We try to treat our employees well.  When we have the opportunity, typically at year end, we do give bonuses to everyone, to acknowledge their work and contributions to our success.  It seems to me, if we’re going to treat our staff more like private employees, we should be vigilant for the same type of opportunities to express our appreciation.

There have been comments to the effect that my proposal would waste public funds.  I think that opinion is seriously misguided.  I’d view it as an investment in our employees.  As good employers know, if you do something unexpectedly nice for your workers, something you don’t have to do, people really appreciate it and you get back an excellent return on your investment in improved morale, higher productivity and generally a happier workplace.  We could really use that in Madison right now.

This proposal is being characterized as a reward to teachers for missing classes last February, and that is certainly not the intention.  As I said at the time, I wasn’t happy about the need to close our schools, though I recognized why the teachers felt like they needed to do what they did.  I do believe that the teachers who participated have paid the appropriate price and for me, that chapter is closed.

It surely doesn’t seem to be closed for lots of other people, though.  I’m sorry that my proposal has stirred up such strong feelings.  As a community we don’t need to pick at those particular sores any more and as a school board we don’t need the distraction.  So, I’ll withdraw my amendment.

I am going to keep thinking about it, though.  I’ll see if I can figure out other ways to show our appreciation to our teachers and staff that won’t be greeted with quite the same level of opposition.  People from all over sent me lots of emails with lots of interesting suggestions.  Some said spend your own money, not the taxpayers.  Well, okay.  Next time I run into teachers at one of our fine drinking and dining establishments, I’ll offer to buy ’em a beer or other beverage.  It’s not near what they deserve, but it’s a start.

(Friday night I was at our fine neighborhood bar, the Harmony, for dinner.  I saw someone in an MTI t-shirt at another table, so I started a tab, went over and introduced myself, and invited the teachers and staff in the group to have a beer on me.  As it turned out, they did not take me up on my offer but instead sent a pitcher to our table.  I was and am genuinely touched by their gesture.  So, a big shout-out to the fine, fine folks from Whitehorse.)

Things tended to calm down Thursday evening.  Our public hearing was quite short – a total of three speakers.  I was able to get home at a reasonable time.  It was about 27 hours after I had hit “send” on my email to the Board with my proposals and the imbroglio had erupted, flared for a while, and begun to die out

Thursday afternoon, Susan Troller posted an entry  in her Chalkboard blog that kind of came to my defense in a thoughtful way.  I’m grateful for that, as well as for TJ Mertz’s blog comments.

I do have one clarification about Susan’s piece.  Susan wrote that my proposal could be viewed in part as an effort to induce on the part of teachers “a greater willingness to move into a new, post-MTI era.”  I understand how she could come to that conclusion from reading my John Matthews post.  But – I am not in favor of the elimination of teachers unions or collective bargaining.  As I have written, I think both serve a useful function.

I am in favor of a less adversarial and more collaborative and forward-looking relationship between the school district and MTI.  I think it is unfortunate that the union seems to perceive that it is in its best interests to portray the school district administration as hostile to teachers.  I would like to see a world where the union views itself less in an adversarial role as a bulwark against the administration’s exploitation of teachers and more collaboratively as partners with the district in figuring out better ways to improve student learning.

From my perspective, my proposal – which, if adopted, would only have amounted to a gesture – wasn’t intended to help persuade teachers to abandon their union.  Instead, I’d hope that it may convey the message that, even when the administration and School Board disagree with teachers’ positions and adopt policies that make their jobs harder, we are not the enemy.  We want to work together collaboratively in pursuit of better results for our students.

As I stated my goal in the initial description of my amendment, we are forcing our teachers to take a big financial hit next year, so it seemed to me to make sense to see if we could get them a little more money this year, particularly since we are running a surplus.  It is interesting to wonder if this whole thing could have been avoided if I had identified as the source of the funds for my idea some portion of the projected $5.5 to $6.2 million budget surplus we are expecting this year rather than specifying that portion of the surplus resulting from the four-day school closings.  The proposal still would have been quite unlikely to pass – but its demise would have been quiet and unnoticed rather than a media event.

I have had lots of ideas and proposals that haven’t gone anywhere, for one reason or another.  That’s okay with me.  I think ’em up and toss ’em out there and see what happens. Some gain traction; some sink like a stone.  Last year, as a way of showing solidarity with our employees from whom we were requiring sacrifices, I submitted a budget amendment proposing that we cut our (meager) School Board salaries by 5%.  My fellow Board members didn’t cotton to that one either.

I was certainly prepared for my gift card budget amendment to fail.  I did not expect it to fail quite so spectacularly.

So, to the people who asked me what in the world were you thinking, that’s what I’ve got to say for myself.  I realize that it’s not a very flattering defense to respond, what’s the big deal — I have lots of bad ideas.  This one just got a lot more attention.

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5 Responses to Gift Card, Anyone? The Anatomy of a Fiasco

  1. David Cohen says:

    Ah, the Madison Board of Education. I’ve had some friends (and some, well, I can’t call them enemies, just not “friends”) who have served on this fine civic body. It’s a fishbowl of sorts although, at times, it more closely resembles a pirana tank. The idea that another Board member might leak your email proposal to the local media is a given. After all, life on the School Board is, by definition, “viral”. Just remember, Ed, that sometimes it takes a few bad ideas before a great idea germinates. Anyone who makes big deal out of this, or holds it against you, isn’t coming up with any great ideas themselves.

  2. Nancy O'Mara says:

    My daughter just graduated from the UW-Madison School of Ed. She has her first professional position teaching in the summer literacy program for the MMSD. For obvious reasons,I think rewarding teachers is a great idea!
    Thanks,Ed!
    Nancy O’Mara

  3. Aunt Bee says:

    Thank you for your service. Propagandists like Blaska, who fancy themselves as journalists, despite wearing ideological blinders that let them see only one side of a story, will continue to attack public education and collective bargaining. The State Journal’s agenda is also clear.

    • Andrew Kirch says:

      I think if you want to rid yourself of the polarization, then how about union representation and collective bargaining for ALL workers in the state, not just those of you who are lucky enough to be in the elite public sector ranks. I earn $45k per year in the private sector and my property taxes are $4,400 per year!!! It would be nice if I could get a pension out of that. Of course we all can’t live that well can we??

      • Lizabeta says:

        Mr. Kirch — I agree with you. You should have the option of a pension and health care benefits as you choose. As far as I know, it isn’t illegal to form a union in this state . . . yet. I highly encourage you to do so.

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