BOE Contract Vote

Three Board of Education members voted against the MTI contract on Monday, June 18, 2007. My initial reaction was that it was a ‘free” vote, a vote without consequences. When elected officials know that there are sufficient votes to pass or defeat a measure they can use their votes to make a statement without taking responsibility for what would happen were they to prevail. This is what happened on Monday, those who voted against the contract knew that it would pass and that they would not be held responsible for the serious consequences that would ensue had they been in the majority. Upon reflection, I realized that in fact the vote has the consequences of exacerbating divisions among our teachers that are hard to justify based on their stated rationales for opposing the contract.

What would have happened if the minority had been the majority, had the contract been voted down after the union had already ratified it? Negotiations would have continued in some form, perhaps simply the preparation of final offers to submit to arbitration. At the Board meeting Superintendent stated that under those circumstances he would have requested the appointment of a new negotiating team. That certainly would have lengthened the process and meant the allocation of additional resources. Superintendent Rainwater and all of the Board members who spoke to the matter were in agreement that the contract was within the guidelines that the Board had given the negotiating team. This raises the possibility that voting down would have been considered a violation of the obligation to bargain in good faith. If that had happened, the union would have gained a big advantage in the continued negotiations. From the district point of view, none of these are good things.

Those who voted against the contract expressed their dissatisfaction with the fact that continuing the basic healthcare framework (WPS and GHC, with most of the cost differences paid by the district) limited the district’s ability to increase salaries. Further negotiations would not have changed this. The impasse agreement in place indicates that the negotiations had passed the deadline where they were required to submit the issues to binding arbitration. Anecdotally, arbitration is rarely desirable for school districts; the terms of the impasse agreement precluded “any modifications of Section VII-B of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, i.e Group Health Insurance.”

I doubt the minority voters would have voted against the contract if there had been any possibility that it would have been rejected; looking at where that would have left the district I am glad there was no possibility.

Those who voted against the contract had previously spoken against the impasse agreement, contending that the district had surrendered a “huge bargaining chip” in the battle to reduce health care costs. It has been explained before that very little was surrendered and that the district received concessions from MTI in return, but this message does not seem to have gotten through. In exchange for an agreement by MTI not to authorize job actions (including “work to contract, which would kill extracurriculars) the district agreed not to impose a Qualified Economic Offer and to remove health insurance and some other issues from potential arbitration (the impasse agreement also set a calendar and included some other conditions, but I don’t know whose interests these favored, perhaps both). A Qualified Economic Offer must maintain, “fringe benefits in effect 90 days before bargaining commenced” and “district percentage fringe contributions then in effect.” In other words, it is impossible for a QEO to change health care benefits in any way. The new contract contains some changes and in this way comes closer to satisfying the expressed desires of those who voted against it.

The two ways to win concessions on healthcare are via negotiations or arbitration. MMSD “gave away” the option of unconditional arbitration (and won some concessions via negotiations). Robert Butler of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (and MMSD bargaining team) cautions “careful consideration” before risking arbitration and identifies four conditions that should be present before a district contemplates this option: “excessive postemployment benefit costs, high health insurance premiums, declining enrollment and a small fund balance.” In comparison to districts around the state (the comparables that an arbitrator would use), MMSD clearly doesn’t meet two of these conditions (postemployment costs and declining enrollment) and is borderline on the others. Seeking healthcare concessions via arbitration does not look like a winning strategy. So much for the “huge bargaining chip.”

Those who voted against the contract gave four reasons that I recall. I’m unclear about the one that had to do with retirees. Another had to do with a quickly corrected misstatement in MTI’s summary of the terms. The healthcare benefit/salary ratio and the supposed effect of this on MMSD’s competitiveness in attracting and retaining quality teachers was the big one and this was linked to the last: concerns about the turnout at the union contract ratification vote. Although members of the minority averred of a desire to “interfere in internal union politics” it is hard to see these last three as anything else (and additionally a way to score points with anti-union voters in future elections).

Before turning to the effect of this attempted interference, I want to quickly address the realities of MMSD’s competitiveness. I’m second to none in my desire for well compensated teachers (salaries and benefits). Both the 1% salary increase and the 4% total package increase are less than I wish the district could provide, but the state finance system doesn’t allow that. The implication is that MMSD salaries are not competitive or will soon cease to be competitive. All evidence is that this is not true. The Wisconsin Association of School Boards collects salary data from districts. In 2006-7 out of 104 districts reporting, MMSD ranked 20th in BA starting salary; 10th in BA and 6 years; 7th in BA max; 39th in MA base; 33d in MA and 9 years; and 43d in MA max. MMSD recently had the highest starting salaries of any surrounding districts. National surveys show that Wisconsin salaries now lag behind those of other midwestern states and MMSD salaries (higher than the state average) seem to be at about the regional average. If MMSD does have difficulty attracting teachers (and I have yet to see any evidence that this is true), I would guess that it is because potential recruits recognize that the state finance system works against job security by forcing “last hired, first fired” cuts. I think that working toward state finance reform will be more effective in raising our teacher salaries than symbolic votes and unsupported assertions about salary competitiveness.

Various school board members have sought to undermine the solidarity of the union by focusing on the differential benefits of those who choose various health plans and have gone so far as saying that it is the “early and mid career” teachers they care about (presumably to the exclusion of our most experienced staff). Exacerbating these divisions is one consequence of their votes against the contract. The success of our schools depends on our teachers working together as teams. Pitting one group of teachers against another can destroy the collegiality of our teaching staff and harm the education of our children. I guess that a minority of the Board thought the benefits of their symbolic vote justified that risk (I am not clear what the supposed benefits are, maybe exacerbating these divisions, but that would be interfering in union politics and they said they weren’t doing that…it gets confusing).

There were also numerous references to the “low” turnout at the union ratification vote. One board member said the turnout was 1%, the number floating around now is about 100 union members voted the only news report I’ve seen put the number at “about 200” or a bit under 10%. Not a huge turnout but also in no way evidence that some silent majority of the union opposed the contract. We hear a lot about MTI’s supposed failure to represent the interests of the membership. If this were true, if dissatisfaction were widespread then it should have been easy to mobilize 200 teachers to vote against the contract. The voices of dissatisfaction point to short notice as a reason for their failure to mobilize. The MTI Bargaining Committee is elected by the membership and there is plenty of notice for those elections. The committee has 15 positions, with 5 up for election each year. This year and last only one of those seats was contested. The Lord helps those who help themselves, but apparently three school board members want to help those who can’t be bothered to help themselves. Maybe they should consider the union members as adults, fully capable of understanding and acting on their interests and not arrogantly seek to undermine the expressed will of the teachers via the established procedures of their legal agent instead of trying to impose what they think is best for others.

I can imagine circumstances where the best interests of the district require the consideration of going to arbitration in an attempt to gain a better contract than what the QEO requires. That is not what happened here (there is little hope of a better contract and no hope on the issues raised by the nay voters) and these circumstances do not exist in MMSD.

I’m tired of writing about health insurance, teacher contracts and the QEO. I’d much rather spend my time and energy on other things. However, as long as some insist on continuing to play political games by using this issue, I’m sure I will continue to put in my 2 cents.

Some are praising those who voted against contract. I hope that this post makes the following clear:

1. The stated goals of those voting against the contract could not be achieved via continued negotiations.

2. Voting down the contract would have weakened the district’s bargaining position and may have led to a ruling that the district had not met good faith criteria.

3. The members who voted against the contract did so knowing that they would lose and they would not be held responsible for the above.

4. Health care savings cannot be achieved by imposing a Qualified Economic Offer.

5. The possibility of arbitration without conditions that the impasse agreement took off the table offered little hope of achieving the stated goals of those who voted against the contract and opposed the impasse agreement.

6. All the evidence indicates that MMSD salaries at all levels, but especially at the lower levels, are competitive.

7. The vote against the contract and the accompanying statements undermine teacher collegiality and morale, to the detriment of our children.

8. Teachers who are dissatisfied with MTI’s bargaining goals and the contract have made little effort to change the former or block ratification of the latter.

There is nothing praiseworthy and much to condemn in what the minority did and their use of unsupportable claims to justify their actions.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under AMPS, Budget, Elections, Local News, School Finance

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