Anti-union proposal closes schools around WisconsinSchool districts around Wisconsin canceled classes on Thursday after thousands of teachers, students and other demonstrators flocked to the Capitol to protest a sweeping anti-union bill that would strip government workers of nearly all of their collective bargaining rights.
By: Dinesh Ramde and Tara Bannow, Associated Press, Superior Telegram
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — School districts around Wisconsin canceled classes on Thursday after thousands of teachers, students and other demonstrators flocked to the Capitol to protest a sweeping anti-union bill that would strip government workers of nearly all of their collective bargaining rights.
Labor supporters and activists have been protesting since Tuesday against Republican Gov. Scott Walker's proposal. On Thursday, an estimated 25,000 protesters flooded the Capitol. Madison schools were closed for a second day, and dozens of other districts followed suit with closures reported in cities including Beaver Dam, La Crosse, Mosinee, Racine, Stoughton and Watertown.
Madison announced it was closing for a third day Friday due to high absences.
"We regret having to make this decision for the third consecutive day, but with the significant percentage of staff members expected to be absent on Friday we can not assure the safety of all students," Madison superintendent Dan Nerad said in a statement.
Kara Panayiotou, 38, a special-education assistant at Franklin Elementary School in the Madison area, said she was prepared to miss a third day, even if she lost out on pay.
"It's a hit but I feel it's worth it," she said. "I need to be here. I need to have my voice heard. I need to stand up for what I believe in."
The Legislature's budget committee passed Walker's bill on a partisan vote just before midnight Wednesday. But several hours later, a group of Democratic lawmakers blocked passage of the bill by refusing to show up for a vote and then abruptly leaving the state in an effort to force Republicans to the negotiating table.
Walker said he had faith the Senate Democrats would return in a day or two and said he would not concede on his plan to end most collective bargaining rights. The governor, who was elected in November, has said the bill is necessary to close a budget shortfall of $137 million and a looming $3.6 billion deficit in the next two-year budget.
Betty Koehl, 55, took a personal day from her job as a social-studies teacher at Sauk Prairie High School to cram into the Capitol rotunda with an estimated 5,000 other protesters. Another 20,000 chanted and picketed outside.
"We would be willing to negotiate, pay more for our retirement and our health care but this is taking away our rights as workers," she said. "It's really union-busting."
Superintendents in the dozens of Wisconsin school districts that were closed expressed sympathy for teachers' plights but emphasized that their top priority should be the students.
"I understand the difficult choice that the staff is faced with in wanting to show support at the state level for opposition to the bill," said Dennis Pauli, head of the Edgerton School District. "Is this the best way to do it? I don't know."
Most districts, including Madison, have said flatly that teachers who miss school and can't produce a doctor's note won't be paid for the missed time. And while some districts said the day will need to be made up later, others were waiting to hear whether the Department of Public Instruction would recommend treating the closure as they would a snow day.
One of the rare protesters who came to support Walker's bill was Dave Willoughby, 38, a swimming coach at a private club. The West Allis man held a sign saying "These teachers have abandoned post."
"There are parents with jobs who were forced to go home because their kids weren't in school. God, that was real helpful," he said, in between vocal arguments with other protesters. "Yeah, that's really what's best for the kids."
Calls from parents reflected a number of opinions. Many were angry that teachers were shirking their classroom duties, while others supported them for standing up for their rights. Still others said they wished the teachers had found a different way to express their opposition.
About a quarter of the staff was out or called in sick in the Racine and Beaver Dam school districts. In Edgerton, 101 out of 131 teachers were out, although some had legitimate excuses. In Mosinee, 86 out of 150 teachers were missing.
Most districts weren't immediately sure whether school would resume on Friday.
Stephen Vessey, superintendent at the Beaver Dam School District, said he was receiving a "nonstop" stream of complaints from parents.
"I've only got one expectation and that is that our teachers come to school today, tomorrow and every day thereafter," he said.