Milwaukee Schools Near Expensive Labor Accord

MPS Teachers’ new contract calls for retroactive salary freeze for one year, payment of teachers’ continuing education

[Milwaukee, Wisc…] According to the latest contract negotiations, teachers in Milwaukee’s Public Schools will have to deal with a salary freeze – for a year that they’ve already worked.

They’re also getting a sweet deal on continuing education that will lead to long-term financial obligations on the part of the school district.

The new man in charge of the largest school district in the state is just happy to have achieved labor peace.

“The agreement is fundamental to our reforms,” said MPS Superintendent Gregory E. Thornton when the agreement was first announced. “We will be glad to have these terms in place for our teachers, who are so critical in our efforts to increase student achievement.”

The Milwaukee Public Schools have a budget of $1.3 billion, however less than 30 percent of that budget is funded by local property taxes. State and federal aid pay for the rest, making MPS budget discussions relevant to all state taxpayers.

While the district trumpets the freeze, it is only a one-year stipulation, and raises for teachers will be reinserted into the system’s framework starting this school year.

In the second year, teachers receive a 3% increase in two lump sums, and years three and four include pay increases of 2.5% and 3%, respectively, based on their 2009 salaries.

But that’s not all. No one is talking about the provision that pays for teachers’ professional development coursework which, upon completion, will help teachers receive even more money from taxpayers.

The Salary Component

Milwaukee teachers would receive no extra pay for their work in 2008-2009, a concession afforded in return for expansive health care programs and increased professional development benefits. However, this salary freeze is just a temporary setback. Over the next three years, MPS educators will earn over $30 million in extra payroll benefits alone.

A three percent raise would be administered in bi-annual bonuses in 2010-2011, but would fail to account for a lasting salary increase. As a result, future raises would be based on 2009-2010 pay scales rather than 2010-2011’s inflated figure. In the final two years of the contract, teachers would receive 2.5 and three percent raises, respectively, which would be dispersed through their normal paychecks. These salary bumps would be administered as standard pay raises in the same plane as MPS has used in the past.

This 2010-2011 bonus will be meted out in 6-month lump sums, which creates a curious circumstance.  The Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA) suggests that the reasoning behind this is based in accounting. Twice-annual payments fall in line with their standard practice with retroactive payments, and with the 2010 school year well underway, these raise appropriations would qualify. However, this also creates the question of where those funds will go between their dispersal dates.

Three percent of 5,600 MPS teachers’ salaries adds up to a significant amount. At an average cost of $56,500 per teacher, these raises will account for $10,170,000 in state funds

While half of this fund would go to the teachers in late December, over $5 million would remain in limbo, currently undocumented in the MTEA’s Q and A document regarding the new contract. Who those funds belong to in the period before distribution, as well as whether this money would be eligible for investment by the state or by MPS is still unclear.

The salary increases raises amount to more than $20,000,000 in additional teacher salaries over the next two years. Even with these gains, the increases are considered as a concession by MTEA bargainers, who say they accepted what they consider modest salary increases in order to secure other benefits.

Paying for Continuing Education

The raises were a bargaining chip leveraged for features such as expansive health care programs and additional compensation for teachers completing professional development courses.

“This agreement benefits our members, their students and the entire district,” said MTEA interim Executive Director Sam Carmen. “It provides teachers with financial security along with a substantial role in shaping their own professional growth.”

While the District hailed the labor agreement as a win for the taxpayers, they declined repeated requests for comment on a provision that has significant long term tax implications.

The latest MPS contract ensures that not only will their professional development be paid for, but they’ll be given wages or credits towards higher salary tracks just for attending. In short, the hours they spend learning will come attached to paychecks – and the state will be footing the bill.

Inservice courses, designed to help a teacher boost their abilities, as well as their earning power, are gaining new significance at MPS. Teachers and administrators will be able to dictate the courses that they want offered to them through a series of online surveys. Once a lineup is set, MPS employees can choose the classes that they want to take in order to learn skills and techniques that will help them in the classroom. Not only are there no tuition fees for teachers in these sessions, but the latest contract dictates that employees are to be paid for their learning time.

The range of payment differs from class to class. Teachers can either get paid on an hourly or daily rate, depending on their status and the schedule of their coursework, or they can defer their payments into credits to move them onto a higher salary scale. Essentially, this boils down to either a one time monetary reward for taking courses outside of their usual scope of duties, or higher salaries lasting into the future and even retirement.

This latter part of the equation stands to have the most lasting impact on state and local taxpayers. While teachers’ salaries are largely dependent on their years of service and experience, there are escalators that reward professional development and achievement through pay raises. At MPS, there are three levels of advancement – one that can be achieved through taking standard college-level classes and two more that are unlocked once a teacher earns his or her Master’s degree.

These inservice courses comprise of up to 44 percent of an individual’s credit toward leveling up to a higher salary track. While a minimum of nine of the 16 credits needed to earn the adjustment must be college credits, teachers would only need seven inservice credits – at 12 hours per credit – to fill out their requirements for the BA +16 lane. This is the first level of development for MPS teachers.

Once a teacher earns their postgraduate degree, they’d be eligible to do the same for the MA+16 and MA+32 lanes, each of which provides their own wage increases for teachers. This provides an additional emphasis on earning a Master’s degree – though MPS doesn’t go so far as to cover that cost.

This goes beyond the standard practice of paying educators for standard inservice days– the two days where students don’t attend classes and teachers instead work in professional development programs. Those days will continue to exist as a part of the annual workload. This additional developmental track will be optional for teachers that want to either expand their horizons, their paychecks, or both. However, unlike the “banking days” of the past, the new programs won’t take up classroom time, and occur on weekends, after school, and during vacation periods.

While providing for employees to expand their professional development horizons isn’t an unusual corporate service, paying them to attend certainly is. Milwaukee is banking on the professional development of their teachers with some huge investments both in the short and long term – and the pressure now falls on the quality of these programs. If the district’s professional development programs don’t hold much value or provide unique learning environments for the city’s teachers, then the city’s taxpayers will be supporting a system that merely provides an illusion of skillful learning.

The city is betting big that making continued learning amongst teachers a lucrative option will stock their system with better teachers. Indeed, having more qualified teachers could be a boon to a struggling school system. However, unless student achievement begins to rise in line with teacher development, it will be just another case of MPS throwing good money after bad. What measures will MTEA take to ensure that a more qualified teacher is a more effective teacher – and that ineffective teachers, regardless of qualifications, are taken out of the classroom?

What’s Next

The Milwaukee Public Schools and their teachers’ union have reached an agreement on a new contract. The Union membership has ratified the proposal and the full MPS School Board will vote to do the same within days.