October School Board Update

This update on School Board activities comes from my column in the October 23 MMSD Family Newsletter:

Here is what your school board has been up to the last couple of weeks:

At special meetings on October 7 and 14, the Board unanimously approved agreements with each of our bargaining units for the 2014-15 school year. As Superintendent Cheatham explained, these agreements help establish a stable environment that enables our teachers and staff to focus on the critical day-to-day work of teaching and learning.

The agreements include a very modest wage increase of .75%. This was all that we felt we could prudently agree to at this point, prior to our undertaking any work on our budget for the 2014-15 school year. The district did reserve the right to unilaterally increase wages beyond the .75% prior to or during the term of the contract.

The district also retains the right to require teachers and staff to contribute up to 10% of the cost of their health insurance. At our school board meeting on October 14, we began discussion of a wellness policy for district employees that might entail a sliding scale of health insurance contributions, tied to the employee’s participation in preventative practices and activities that contribute to good health.

I don’t believe there is interest on the board in an across-the-board cut in our teachers’ take-home pay. So any discussion of employee contributions toward the cost of health insurance will likely be accompanied by a discussion of some greater salary increase than .75%. But all of this is very preliminary at this point. The conversation will get more focused early next year when we head into the discussion of our 2014-15 budget.

The agreement with our teachers establishes several joint committees that will consider whether changes to particular provisions of the collective bargaining agreement might result in enhanced student learning and so should be implemented. These joint committees are emblematic of the way we hope to work together with our teachers and staff in the years to come. The district’s new Strategic Framework benefited greatly from the contributions of teachers and staff who participated in the groups that put it together. We anticipate carrying forward that same sort of constructive dialogue in the joint committees. With positive outcomes, we’ll be furthering our goal of setting Madison apart as a model of a successful urban school district built on genuine collaboration in the service of student success.

Our collective bargaining took place in the midst of an uncertain legal landscape. Act 10, enacted in 2011, eliminates collective bargaining for public employees on all issues except base wages. Last year, in a lawsuit brought by Madison Teachers Inc. (MTI), Dane County Circuit Court Judge Juan Colas ruled that portions of Act 10 are unconstitutional, including the restriction on the subjects that could be addressed through collective bargaining. That decision is currently being reviewed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

There are issues about how broadly Judge Colas’ ruling should be applied throughout the state while it is under review, but there is no question that it applies to MTI. So, despite some contentions to the contrary, there is no real dispute that the school district is on firm legal ground in engaging in collective bargaining with MTI at this time. The situation may certainly change when the supreme court issues its decision, which will either uphold or overrule Judge Colas’ ruling. That decision will likely come sometime in the late winter or spring. Once it does, we’ll review how it affects our agreements and take whatever action is appropriate at that time.

The board also held meetings of our Instruction Work Group on October 7 and Operations Work Group on October 14. (These work groups are essentially committees of the whole Board where we typically discuss issues without taking formal action.)

At our October 7 meeting, the board discussed a draft policy recognizing that our English Language Learners are entitled to effective instructional programs and supportive services appropriate to meet their needs. The policy also recognizes that the needs of ELL students can be better identified if their parents and guardians are included in the educational decisions that affect them.

We also learned about two “human capital” initiatives we’ll be undertaking. First, we’ll be issuing a request for proposals for consulting services to assist us in overhauling our current practices for the recruitment, hiring and induction of our new employees. A particular focus will be on developing a “principal pipeline” program to identify and develop the kinds of principals we’ll need to help lead the district forward in the coming years. The second initiative is a job classification and compensation study that should help us bring greater clarity, consistency and equity to the titles, duties and compensation that go along with the various positions our employees hold both in our central office and in our schools.

Money is always tight in the school district and we have to prioritize where we devote our scarce resources. Our focus is always on supporting classroom learning, but this can leave other areas of need unaddressed. Truth be told, our facilities for sports and the arts can sometimes get a bit threadbare. Fortunately, dedicated parents and community members occasionally step up to undertake some fundraising for needed improvements in facilities and equipment. Unfortunately, we don’t make it for very easy for them. Anyone interested in reviewing the school district’s fundraising policies would be off on a confusing journey through several not-necessarily-consistent Board policies with no easy way of finding guidance or assistance. The Board discussed the situation at our October 14 meeting. We requested our staff to start fresh and bring us some recommended policies that will enable us to remove some of the obstacles we’ve erected so that we can work more as partners with our generous fundraising volunteers.

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