At times I feel like a broken record, asking the same questions over and over again. But as long as our news media continues to leave essential information out of their reports — like pages missing from the middle of a book –, I’m going stay stuck in this groove.
The inspiration today is the story in the Wisconsin State Journal by Sandy Cullen on the arbitrator’s decision on the 2006-2008 MMSD contracts with the Madison Teachers Incorporated affiliated clerical, security and educational assistants bargaining units (disclosure: My spouse is a Special Education Assistant with MMSD). The question (and some of the text) is the same as this post from over a year ago on the MTI teacher contract negotiations: “Where is the QEO?”
If the story had been solely about the district employees covered by the arbitration, leaving out the QEO might have been acceptable. But teachers are part of the story Cullen wrote and once teacher contracts — and the place of health insurance in these contracts — are raised, some discussion of the Qualified Economic Offer Law is needed.
In brief, (quoting from my previous post), “The QEO requires districts that wish to avoid arbitration to offer each year a total package that is at least 3.8% larger than the previous contract. Total package means salary and benefits combined. With health care costs rising that has meant very small salary increases for Madison’s teachers…. This mix or balance has been their choice, how they have wished to “spend” their 3.8%. The state says this is their money and that health care is part of collective bargaining.”
The clerical employees, the security employees and assistants bargain on a very different court of play, one without the floor (or ceiling) provided by the QEO and one that is less orientated toward a single “total package” figure.
As John Matthews of MTI notes in Cullen’s story, ” “I expect they will now come back and try it [to obtain a change in health insurance providers/choices] again with the teacher group.” When that happens, some fool will no doubt point to this arbitrator decision or the the contracts negotiated for administrators or even Dane County employees and accuse the Board or the District or the Union of malfeasance if the changes don’t go through.
A basic understanding of the QEO exposes these comparisons as absurd. For this reason, in the interest of informed public discussion is is essential that all discussions of teacher contracts in Wisconsin include some explanation of the QEO.
A couple of other issues with Cullen’s article.
This paragraph is a bit one-sided and misleading:
“It certainly will be a benefit to both our employees and the taxpayers,” said Superintendent Art Rainwater, adding that the savings were applied to salary increases for the employees affected.
There is nothing wrong with quoting Supt. Rainwater’s view, but good journalism requires some analysis of that view or at very least an acknowledgment of alternative interpretations. On the point Rainwater makes in this paragraph, Cullen provides neither. I think the MTI negotiating team (and according to MTI employee surveys, a majority of the members of the bargaining units) would disagree that it is a benefit to the employees. After all, they fought tooth and nail against the change. The arbitrator’s decision also had some interesting things to say about the “quid pro quo” trade off of wages and insurance choices (“The Arbitrator concluded that the Employer demonstrated by clear and convincing evidence the need for a change, but it failed to establish by that standard that it offers a quid pro quo for the change“). What is clear is that the 2.5% and 2.9% wage increases are near or below the rate of inflation and that they are exactly the same as the increases proposed by the Union, without any health insurance changes. If I read the statement and the District’s position correctly, they are saying the only way we can provide cost of living increases to some of our lowest paid employees is by cutting their benefit costs. I realize that the broken school finance system creates hard choices, but this kind of balancing the books on the backs of the those at the bottom is not a very attractive idea (I can’t find a copy of the administrator agreement or salary scale, does anyone know what annual increases they receive?).
The other thing that bothered me is that you have to get to the last paragraphs of Cullen’s story to learn that this contract expires in September. The parties spent untold hours and dollars reaching a settlement that will be active for all of 2 1/2 months (the insurance portion, only for a month, beginning August 1). There is no attempt to estimate these costs — including the services of hired guns contracted by the district — anywhere. The story cites a $1.6 million savings for next year. That is probably true because negotiations for the next contract will begin with the terms of this contract, but there really is no guarantee. The only guaranteed savings are for the month of August, 2008 (about $130,000, minus administrative costs involved with the changes).
This isn’t about whether the arbitrator, the district or the union were right or wrong; it isn’t about costs and benefits of WPS as an insurance provider. My primary concern here is the lack of quality reporting and how this lack makes it more difficult to have informed public discussion of issues that should be of concern to all of us.
Thomas J. Mertz