Short-sighted proposals spell long-term erosion for state's K-12 schools

The 2009-11 state budget advanced by the Joint Finance Committee threatens the ability of Wisconsin K-12 school boards to responsibly manage the fiscal affairs of their districts during these difficult economic times.

The 2009-11 state budget advanced by the Joint Finance Committee threatens the ability of Wisconsin K-12 school boards to responsibly manage the fiscal affairs of their districts during these difficult economic times.

The Legislature's budget-writing committee put forward a budget that deliberately puts school boards at a disadvantage in contract negotiations with teachers in a misguided effort to protect teachers during the current economic downturn.

We fully acknowledge that teachers are integral to the educational mission of a school; however, at this time, securing teacher pay raises and premium health care benefits cannot be paramount to the educational needs of children and the well-being of the overall school district.

The most recent budget proposal cuts school aids by more than 3 percent and further limits K-12 school district revenues. Instead of recognizing that school boards will in turn, be faced with difficult decisions to further reduce expenses, the Joint Finance Committee budget proposal further inflamed the situation by changing the rules of the game for contract negotiations because the proposal removes school board power to control the largest portion of the local school budget: salaries and benefits.

Under the current rules, when any local government -- city, village, town, county or school district - can't amicably resolve an employee contract with a local union, the two sides take their last, best offers to a neutral, objective, outside arbitrator. Both sides make their case and the arbitrator decides who wins.


K-12 school boards can opt to avoid this costly process if they provide at least a 3.8 percent total compensation increase -- the minimum package called a qualified economic offer (QEO).

The most recently proposed 2009-11 state budget does three things to protect teacher salaries from effects of the economic downturn:

1. It eliminates the QEO in 2010 in the hopes of securing salary and benefit awards higher than 3.8 percent.

2. To make matters more dire, the long-term legislative proposal specifically exempts school district arbitrations from the requirement that arbitrators consider and give the greatest weight to revenue limits and local economic conditions. While arbitrators would continue to give these two factors paramount consideration when deciding cases for all other local governments, the importance of fiscal limits and local economic conditions would be specifically diminished for school district arbitrations.

3. However, in the budget proposal, not even arbitration is available to school boards as a remedy for the upcoming year. Teacher unions recognize that arbitrations are less likely to go their way due to the economic climate even if arbitration factors are changes, so they asked for a one-year reprieve. As a result, in many cases school boards will either have to agree to a 3.8 percent compensation increase or postpone making any decisions until after July 1, 2010.

The bottom line for local families and communities is that any one of these changes hinders school boards' efforts to control salary costs. Combined, these changes effectively prevent school boards from dealing with the current economic crisis and making the tough choices that need to be made. Repealing the QEO, diminishing the importance of today's economy on teacher salary negotiations, and taking arbitration off the table for one year is a recipe for significant layoffs and drastic cuts in our schools.

We are calling for responsible government. This is not the way to preserve Wisconsin's strong public education tradition. At a time when every expert in the nation is calling upon education as a solution to the economic woes of this country, in Wisconsin, we are responding by tying our local school boards' hands and offering them a scenario that can only further erode opportunities for students or increase property taxes while diminishing the local school boards ability to serve its community's children.

John H. Ashley is the executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards is a nonprofit association that provides information and services to Wisconsin school boards.

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