Balanced Budgets and Free Lunches in Kaukauna

The provisions of the Budget Repair Bill have gone into effect.  For school districts that (unlike Madison) did not extend their collective bargaining agreement with their teachers unions, it is a brand new day.

In those districts, collective bargaining agreements are essentially gone and the districts have much wider discretion over compensation and working conditions for their teachers and other staff.

The Kaukauna School District is one that has taken advantage of the Budget Repair Bill provisions.  Like nearly all school districts, Kaukauna now requires its teachers and staff to pay the employees’ share of their retirement contributions, which amounts to 5.8% of their salary, and is also requiring a larger employee payment toward the cost of health insurance, up to 12.6% from 10%.

The district also took advantage of the expiration of its collective bargaining agreement to impose a number of other changes on its teachers.  For example, it unilaterally extended the work day for high school teachers from 7.5 to 8 hours and increased the teaching load from five to six high school classes a day.

The president of the Kaukauna School Board issued a statement about how the new law helped the district balance its budget and make other beneficial changes in its operations.

This was enough for the Governor and his supporters to make the district the poster child for their claims that, despite all the protests, the new laws will actually help education in the state.

Governor Walker’s Facebook page features a link to a television news story about the district’s budgeting, under the heading “It’s Working: Kaukauna School District to Hire More Teachers and Reduce Class Sizes.”

A columnist in the Washington Examiner saw fit to write about the various savings that Kaukauna was able to realize and concludes that for Kaukauna, the changes brought about by the Budget Repair Bill have been “a godsend, not a disaster.”

Blogger Ann Althouse cited to a Journal-Sentinel blog post about Kaukauna’s budget decisions and snarked, “Let’s stop and think of all the protesters who carried signs asserting that their opposition to Scott Walker was for the children.”

The Kaukauna School Board made decisions that I assume make sense for their district.  But I don’t see how their decisions vindicate much of anything, let alone the provisions of the Budget Repair Bill and Budget Bill.

First, it is important to step back for a little perspective on the situation faced by all school districts in the state.  For more than fifteen years, school districts have been laboring under the spending limits imposed by the legislature.

Every year, school districts’ costs go up by more than they are permitted to increase their expenditures, and so school districts have been searching for savings and imposing cuts on their programs for years.

The spending limits put school districts in a vice, and this year the Governor tightened the screws.  In the past, school spending has been permitted to rise by a modest amount, typically a couple of hundred dollars per year per student, though by not enough to cover rising costs.

This year for the first time schools have had to cut their levels of expenditures – instead of increasing spending by a couple of hundred dollars per student, the Governor’s budget requires cuts of 5.5%, which work out to about $550 or $600 per student.

The Governor has proclaimed that his legislation provided school districts with the “tools” to deal with their obligation to cut expenses.  The tools amount to the opportunity to balance a school district’s budget by taking the needed dollars out of the take-home pay of the district’s teachers.  These pay reductions come in the form of mandated employee contributions to their retirement plans and increased contributions to the cost of their health insurance.

School districts were provided other opportunities for disadvantaging their teachers as well.  All school boards made use of these cost-saving options, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.  Kaukauna seems to fall on the extremely enthusiastic end of the spectrum.

So, the budget bill and the budget repair bill require school districts to make big cuts and essentially directed the districts to compel their teachers to bear the brunt of the cuts.   Having no other options, school districts played their part in this plan.  We did this in Madison, though with less zest than some districts.  It is certainly the case that as a result it was easier for us to get to a balanced budget this year than in previous years.

Is this exercise something worth celebrating?  Well, one point that hasn’t received much attention is that the changes to teachers’ compensation that the Budget Repair Bill mandates are essentially one-time fixes.

School districts will have to repeat their cost-slashing exercises next year and every subsequent year until the state’s school funding formula is overhauled.  It is quite unlikely that we’ll be able balance our budgets on the backs of our teachers more than once.  So this isn’t anything close to a permanent solution to school districts’ annual budgeting challenges.

There are longer-term issues as well.  While the Governor has wanted to send the message around the country that Wisconsin is open for business, the message that he indisputably sent everywhere, around the globe as well as around the country, is that Wisconsin has it in for its teachers.

If you’re a teacher, or plan to be one, we’re telling you that we’re not going to be very welcoming in this state.  We’ll cut your take-home pay, worsen your working conditions and, by gosh, we’ll make you like it.

It’s puzzling the extent to which folks seem to think that we can cut teachers’ pay and load them up with new responsibilities and yet not expect that there will be any effect on their job performance.  The world doesn’t work that way. Teachers, like everyone, react to incentives.

You get what you pay for.  As we cut teachers’ pay, make their working conditions less attractive, and demonstrate in other ways that we don’t value their contributions to the educational enterprise, then, all else equal, teachers with other options will leave our employment.   The teachers who stay won’t be as willing to go above and beyond their minimum obligations.  We’ll be unable to attract as high a caliber of applicant for teacher vacancies as we have in the past.  The quality of the teaching profession in Wisconsin will eventually but inevitably go down.   Our students will learn less as a result.

Long term, we’ll have two options.  We can try to address this problem or we can ignore it.

If we try to address it, the remedy will likely be expensive.  If the cuts this year were not a needed adjustment to bring the compensation of Wisconsin teachers more in line with what teachers make in other states – and no one has claimed that they were – then at some point we’re going to have to make it up to our teachers.

Eventually we’ll have to raise teacher compensation in the state in order to keep up with other states.  Of course, if we are to fit a genuine increase in teacher pay within the frequently-suffocating overall spending limits the state imposes, we’ll have to find even more drastic cuts in programming.

If eventual catch-up pay raises for teachers is the likely response to the pay-cuts we’re imposing this year, then this year’s budget exercises amount to borrowing the funds to balance our budgets from our teachers and pushing off the eventual reckoning for however long it takes us to realize that underpaying our most important employees is a false economy.

The alternative approach is for us to ignore the fact that Wisconsin is carving out a reputation as a state good teachers will do their best to avoid.  If we follow this course, we’ll have to reconcile ourselves as a state to being a relative backwater for the teaching profession, with the decrease in overall teacher quality and reduced student achievement that can be expected to go along with that.

Just as our free-market friends like to remind us that there’s no free lunch, there’s also no way to avoid the grievous impact on employee morale and the adverse employment market reaction that we prompt when we decide we’ll just figuratively beat up on our teachers until this year’s school district budgets are balanced.  To me, that doesn’t seem like much to celebrate.

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23 Responses to Balanced Budgets and Free Lunches in Kaukauna

  1. Mike Schwaegerl says:

    Somebody at last sees the problems with Walker’s education laws. As I asked in my last comment–with whom will the board speak. I would also like to see Walker’s recruiting plan for new teachers in Wisconsin. To pretend that his teachers of the future will replace the current teachers with only youth and enthusiam as weapons–Good luck.

  2. Thank you. Thank you. These are exactly the points the media seems to miss when just offering up Walker talking points. It’s frustrating to see him continually blaming teachers for his underfunding of schools. Even more frustrating are the people who believe Walker and continually bash teachers thanks to his talking points.

  3. David Blaska says:

    Ed, the private sector is doing the same thing — cutting back on its pension contributions, requiring greater health contributions — plus extensive layoffs. States that are not doing what Governor Walker did are also laying off employees. School Districts like Milwaukee laid off over 500 employees when that number could have been reduced to less than half because the teachers union was typically intransigent. Government is not a growth industry and has not been for about 8 years. If Gov. Walker/President Obama can get the economy going again tax revenues will be flush and public employees will share in the goodies just like they did under the Gov. Thompson/Bush regimes.

    • David –

      I understand that things are tough all over. My point is not that teachers and school districts should be immune from doing their part to help address the state’s budget deficit. It’s that actions have consequences. If we’re going to cut teachers’ take home pay, ramp up their work obligations, remove their job protections, and then gloat about it – “In your face, WEAC!” – rational teachers and would-be teachers are going to react.

      If we make teaching a less attractive profession, we’re going to end up with less skilled and dedicated teachers and our students will learn less as a result. It is baffling to me that this obvious point seems to have been lost in all the back-and-forth about Budget Repair Bill and Budget Bill.

      Decision-makers at the state level seem to have devoted precious little thought to the best ways of dealing with the need to cut school costs without unnecessarily disadvantaging our teachers or squandering their goodwill. Their priorities appear decidedly to lie elsewhere.

      Let’s all hope that the economy recovers and we return to more flush times. Seems to me we should be thinking hard about how we can keep our best teachers doing their best through these lean times so they stick with us and our kids until things get better. And also about how we can persuade the most promising new teachers to come work for us. And no, merit pay proposals are not going to do the trick.

  4. David Blaska says:

    Ed, you want to encourage promising new teachers. Yet, who are the teachers being laid off in Milwaukee due to the union’s intransigence? The youngest, the least senior, the most promising. If they get other jobs will they ever come back? You’ve ruled out merit pay … why? Have you tried it? Speaking of job protections, who is protecting the MTEA jobs? Not the union! 500 of their members have no jobs, thanks to the union decision not to agree to some modest givebacks during a tough economy.

  5. Brent Nelson says:

    You’re right Dave. Anytime ANYONE is out of work and having a tough go of it, it sucks. Tough times indeed. So why shouldn’t K-12 educators “share in the pain?” It’s my opinion that it’s because the stakes are too high. As Ed relays, we are chasing the best and brightest (both present and those young people considering being a teacher) OUT of education. Wisdom would seem to dictate that the quality of the resulting product will subsequently go down. As we continue to find ourselves becoming less and less competitive educationally globally, is this truly a wise risk?

    My life does not get substantially better when teacher’s in my community take it in the shorts. I don’t feel that — because I’m struggling — teacher’s in my community should have to as well. The few hundred dollars I’ll save in taxes doesn’t really improve my lot in life, and I don’t believe that it will result in some run on goods and stimulate the economy. It feels like a “we’re hurting and you should too” argument you’re making. I just don’t agree that’s the way out, particularly when recognizing the importance of K-12 education.

  6. Aunt Bee says:

    Who decides who gets merit pay? Will the students or parents vote, or the administrators, faculty or school board?
    Typo: Caught in a vise, not a vice (unless you’re referring to Fitzwalkerstan as a whole).
    The right understands the concept of solidarity when it comes to groups like WMC, NFIB, etc., but doesn’t like it when it comes to collective bargaining.

  7. More national coverage of the Kaukauna school district budget: Rush Limbaugh apparently took notice, which may not have raised the level of discourse..

  8. Mad4Madison says:

    Ed –

    I will attempt to enter into the conversation in a manner that does not “stir the pot” in a confrontational way. I do enjoy the sharing of viewpoints, even if I may or may not agree with them. Unfortunately, the moderates in the state are being forced to “choose” a side.

    I would state that Kaukauna took a different approach to the budgeting challenges that others. I know you stated the same thing as well. Yes, the teachers are required to conduct an additional class. However, the class “days” that are being spent on education does remain the same, does it not? So the actual days spent teaching in school has not changed. And as a professional – and I do count educators as professionals – I would not view moving to the 8 hour day as being outrageous. You do point out the benefit, but in passing – smaller classes. And if the numbers are correct, we are talking a material change in class size.

    Being the son of an educator, I do understand that time is spent outside of class either preparing or grading papers, meeting with parents, etc. And I am not even counting the evenings attending performances to support the school or other activities (my mother also was a cheerleading coach for a time). But I also know that once the lesson plan was prepared, she could use it as a base for each year and modify it accordingly, so the reduction in planning time does not have to be the end of the world either.

    But what you did not mention at all was the savings from being able to actually compete for health insurance. One of the CB provisions was “WEA Trust” as the sole provider. Open up the competition and (if the numbers are accurate) a large reduction for each year. I think you reference a free market above and certainly Kaukauna is benefiting from a free market in this case.

    I know many educators in Madison and they are feeling bullied and beat up. But my personal opinion is that tax payers (yes, I know teachers pay taxes too) are also feeling beat up. And it doesn’t appear to be getting any better.

    I understand the fact that some districts have made the teachers take a large “hit” to balance the local district’s budget. But I know enough about MMSD to be able to say that there are programs that can be cut or reduced that will not impact the overall classroom. Yes, there are some programs that are beneficial to some students. And yes, you have some really good ideas for the district. And the teachers have really good ideas for the district. And so do parents and community leaders. We don’t suffer from a lack of ideas, but rather a finite amount of resources. Unfortunately, just like the teachers feel beat up, I do too when people say that I am against a program just because I don’t want my taxes to go up. I would love to see a district (ours) that can take an objective approach to programming and determine if the return on the investment is most adventageous. If that makes me a bad guy or someone who wants to put a price on education, well ok I guess. I don’t agree with that assertion, but not much I can do about it. I simply believe that we can find ways to improve without additional funds.

  9. Jon Joseph says:

    Mad4Madison: How do you define a “professional”? Can you please give examples of other occupations you would define as professional?

  10. Kristen says:

    Mad4Madison – I agree 100% that the district needs to do more objective analysis of programming, and stop doing things that don’t work. I don’t think anyone disagrees with that.

    “But I know enough about MMSD to be able to say that there are programs that can be cut or reduced that will not impact the overall classroom.”

    As an involved parent and frequent school-board-meeting attendee, in my experience, most of the items that continue to appear on the chopping block DO impact the overall classroom. Last year, the district proposed a 4-tier cornucopia of “programs that can be cut or reduced” and parents/students came out in droves to fight for these programs:

    Watch the videos – these are programs people care very deeply about.

    This year, so far, the budget was balanced on the backs of the teachers. The cuts to their salaries took care of closing most of the budget gap.

    I, too, work in the private sector and have moments of “Oh, why can’t they just measure ROI in the school, just like we do in business?” But it’s not that easy. I believe that 80% of the district budget goes to salaries. So most of the cuts we are talking about are people. An aide to a severely autistic child, or a caring social-worker, or an top-notch art teacher, or a Hmong translator probably costs a lot of taxpayer money. And it might be hard to show a measurable return on that investment. But I will fight every single “don’t raise my taxes” voice to keep that aide and those teachers in our schools.

  11. Mad4Madison says:

    Kristen – Thanks for the comments back. I never stated it would be easy, simply that the impact to the classroom can be minimized. The challenge with the list and the categorization that was done is that the list was not all inclusive. Some items / programs were not included on the list in the first place. And without going too deep in this blog of Ed’s, let me relate a story from the past and one that does not involve MMSD.

    For years, Amtrak has lost money while living as a quasi private and public entity. When Congress would mention cutbacks, Amtrak woudl publish the list of stations, routes and services it would cut based on the reduced funding. When an analysis was done, the cuts were targeted in districts that had Congressmen(women) that were considering the cuts. It became political. The basis of the cut in funding became those services that were identified by Amtrak itself. I would like to see a list of services that were up for consideration that came from a broad group of people and not MMSD itself. Just an idea.

    Jon – While not a difinitive list, let me list several different careers and vocations as professionals:

    Lawyers, accountants, teachers, nurses, doctors, med techs, firemen, police, tech folks, journalists, writers, professors, researchers, scientists, architects, engineers, etc.

    You see, I think a majority of people think fo themselves as professionals and I do too. Where problems arise is when one perceives themselves to be professional, yet there is a difference in opinion or expectations into what that actually means for performance and behavior.

  12. Jon Joseph says:

    Mad4Madison: Thanks for the reply. Checking average salaries for each professional occupation that you listed the only salary that came in below a teacher’s average salary was, sadly, firemen. In most cases a teacher’s average salary was at least $8000 per year lower than other professional occupations. Of course teachers know this and they accept it as part of the landscape. However, what has happened as a result of the poor perception of teaching as a career is that most future teachers are drawn from the bottom 1/3 of a graduating class in terms of SAT scores and class rank. See for example I’m not a union fan and I don’t believe teacher unions have stayed relevant. However, you can cut as many programs as you like and the quality of the education will not improve until the perception of its most basic unit, the teacher, improves. In your opinion, in the last seven months how many college students have been energized by the prospects of becoming a teacher in the Wisconsin public school system?

  13. Mad4Madison says:

    Interesting question, but let me try to break the rule and answer a question with a question:

    How many educators got into the profession due to pay?

    Let’s pick another profession – nursing. I see similarities between the two that have nothing to do with gender stereotypes of many years ago. (Just needed to get that out of the way). Back to nursing. Many nurses get into the profession based on a desire to either server their community. Same can be said with other civic services. Nurses are not going to “get rich.” And neither are educators. They know that going into the profession. Many choose teaching because they are good at it. Or they want to shape the future by educating our children. Or they like the schedule – let’s be honest here for a second.

    If you hang around the forums, you may have seen my posts before. I consider myself to be more middle of the road, but honestly coming from the right and not left to the middle. I support higher teacher pay. But I also support a meritocracy. I also have my own personal issues with expenses at MMSD. And having been in a corporate / professional role, I have to say that I also believe that out of a budget of $220,000,000 that reducing less than 1% causes such pain. I also have an issue with calling a reduction in an increase to the budget a cut. But that is for another forum, not Ed’s.

    • Brent Nelson says:

      “Mad4Madison says:
      July 8, 2011 at 3:12 pm
      Interesting question, but let me try to break the rule and answer a question with a question: How many educators got into the profession due to pay?”

      In taking a shot at answering your question to a question, I’d say most all of them. People work for money. There may be other intrinsic and external rewards. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive. But in the end, we work for money. I believe it’s silly to think teacher’s should or will work for “the love of the game.” There may indeed be love…..but life doesn’t work like that. If you divest in the most important element of the teaching and learning equation — faculty — wisdom (and simple economics) would dictate that the quality of the product will go down. Pretty simple…….

      • Mad4Madison says:

        Great reply!

        But if you believe that people work for money and life choices are made based on that, then we would see vocations that do not have “great” pay or those vocations where pay is below the norm for professional pay have less qualified applicants and / or lower quality of professional.

        Let’s take a challenge that has faced the industry of education. Please bear with me as I have no intention of creating a gender biased issue. In the past, there were three vocations that attracted a disproportionate amount of female workers – nurses, secretaries and educators (again, my mom falls into the category). As gender equality changed our society, it also changed industries. Now women are leaders in many, many other industries and professions. Why? More money and / or passion for other jobs than just three. Did that in and of itself create lower quality teachers? If you believe that people choose jobs for money and you believe that lower paying job attracts lower quality candidates, then you have to answer yes to the question. If you answer no, then you have to agree that there is a disconnect between pay and passion or “love of the game.” My personal opinion is that there is a mixture of the two. So I do not believe that the answer is simple. It is anything but.

        And I think Ed does start to adress this in the comment below. The teachers are getting a message about how little people value their contribution. And I agree that message should change. But I do not agree that there is a 1:1 relationship between value and pay. There is a relationship, but not 1:1. For example, I know I can make more if I changed employers. But I like my job and I like where I work, so I choose not to leave. Pay is a factor, but it is not the only factor, nor the primary factor.

        I simply believe that we can express value, admiration and support of educators without getting into the argument that money is the only way to do so. If that is not the case, then I would say that I am in complete support of raising my taxes to increase educator pay. But I want something in return and that would be a merit based / performance based system.

  14. Mad4Madison says:

    Sorry – a few typos. It is certainly not due to my education! 🙂

    • Brent Nelson says:

      I agree that bottom line $$$ is not the ONLY way we can express value, admiration, support, and respect for teachers and their profession. I couldn’t agree with you more. I don’t believe most teachers at present are feeling the love. Salary is but part of that equation, albeit likely a large part.

  15. First, thanks to those who have posted comments. It is gratifying to generate such a reasonable and enlightening back-and-forth, particularly compared with what we see in the (to me) virtually unreadable comments posted on There seems to be a kind of Gresham’s law of blog comments where the bad drives out the good and it’s great that that hasn’t happened here.
    Second, I should clarify that I don’t see all the changes brought about to the collective bargaining process by the Budget Repair Bill as unmitigated disasters. I think it’s a good thing when school districts have more flexibility to shop around for health insurance, for example. (I should note, however, that our health insurance costs came in lower than we were forecasting this year without any relevant changes in our collective bargaining agreement. So it’s probably inaccurate to assume that all lower-than-forecast health insurance costs in school districts that let their CBAs expire are attributable to that change.)
    I do worry about the teaching profession in this state. We all seem to recognize the key role teachers play in the quality of education we provide, and yet the message we as a state have been sending virtually screams that we do not value our teachers or respect their contributions. This goes well beyond requiring teachers to pay their share of their retirement contributions and more for health insurance. It seems crazy to me.

  16. Brent Nelson says:

    Mad4Madison says:
    July 11, 2011 at 11:26 am
    “Let’s take a challenge that has faced the industry of education. Please bear with me as I have no intention of creating a gender biased issue. In the past, there were three vocations that attracted a disproportionate amount of female workers – nurses, secretaries and educators (again, my mom falls into the category). As gender equality changed our society, it also changed industries. Now women are leaders in many, many other industries and professions. Why? More money and / or passion for other jobs than just three. Did that in and of itself create lower quality teachers? If you believe that people choose jobs for money and you believe that lower paying job attracts lower quality candidates, then you have to answer yes to the question. If you answer no, then you have to agree that there is a disconnect between pay and passion or “love of the game.” My personal opinion is that there is a mixture of the two. So I do not believe that the answer is simple. It is anything but.”

    I got a chance to re-read this, and I have to acknowledge I don’t follow this reasoning or logic at all. I WOULD argue that higher paying jobs — AS A GENERAL RULE — will indeed attract higher quality and better trained applicants. But I don’t believe that by answering “yes” to the scenario you outlined that I have to reach the conclusion you posed. I admit I’m VERY very slow…..but I don’t follow your line of argument. One doesn’t absolutely lead to the other. If posting a position in your own place of employment would you argue that offering a lower or higher salary is the best path towards a deeper pool with the highest quality candidates? It seems pretty simple to me that if you divest in the most important element of the teaching and learning equation — faculty — that the quality of the product will eventually go down.

    We do agree, however, that money is but PART of the “respect” equation. As a general rule, I think it fair to say that this administration (and many school boards who are following suit) have NOT respected educators, and that this is demonstrated through ACTIONS rather than words. In fact, I’m not sure we have ever given educators the respect they deserve as I look back……Let’s fix that.

    • Brent Nelson says:

      Final comment about respect: It will be interesting when some of these same school districts that are balancing budgets almost exclusively on the backs of teachers and who have refused the thought of any referendum that might make faculty positions more attractive because their communities “are broke” begin rolling out referendums for bricks and mortar — for buildings — next year. What will that say about respect for the “teacher” position within their budget hierarchy?

  17. Mad4Madison says:

    My comemnts were in a direct answer to the comparison of salaries for educators to other professionals and then the commentator drawing the inference that due to lower pay, there is lower quality. I merely drew out the example to see if people would agree.

    I believe there is MORE to employment than money. So I start to tune out when the comments come out that educators need to make more money. I would LIKE to make more money too, but that does not mean that I WILL or that I SHOULD. Nor does it mean that by paying less money than other professionals that we will necessarily get less quality. I go on to make the point about history and simply state that if we were so bent on the money piece, then we would have seen a gross degradation in the quality of our educators. And we have not.

    Teaching is tough. I would not want to do it, so I chose a different career. And while there are negatives to teaching as a career, there are positives. As long as we can have a rational conversation and be able to agree on the benefits and the negatives, then we can move forward. But right now there is so much energy going both ways that rational conversations go out the window. Just read the forums on

    Ed – thanks for the blog and letting folks post. While we all may not agree with you, nor each other, I do like the ability to hear all sides without getting blasted!

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