Kenosha, Like Milwaukee, Chooses Teacher Layoffs Instead of Teacher Contributions

Union Refuses to Negotiate, Jeopardizes Union Jobs

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

Move over, Milwaukee. There is another Wisconsin school district preparing to fire hundreds of teachers in 2011.

Though Milwaukee’s upcoming teacher layoffs have garnered national coverage, the City of Kenosha’s problems have slid under the radar; this despite the fact the district has an enrollment of nearly 24,000 students. Thanks to a previously agreed upon contract and a refusal of the teachers’ union to enter a side agreement as allowed by the new state law, 338 teachers are staring down pink slips for the 2011-2012 school year. Only three of the state’s 15 largest school districts have refused to negotiate or reopen contract talks to include cost saving measures in the face of upcoming budget cuts.

The Kenosha Unified School District is facing a deficit of $33 million between existing structural shortcomings and their share of the 2011-2013 Wisconsin state budget, which includes a reduction in state aid. Their plan so far has been to slash payroll by releasing staff members. Cutting 212 full-time teachers will save an estimated $17.4 million in 2011.

However, much like in Milwaukee, these coming layoffs are preventable.

Districts across Wisconsin have been able to save teacher jobs by including modest teacher benefit contributions into their contracts. These contributions, defined in Act 10, include payments of 5.8 percent of wages towards the state pension program (which is matched by the state) and 12.6 percent of monthly health care premiums. Twelve of the state’s 15 largest districts have either approved or are in the process of negotiating contracts with these stipulations built in to save teaching jobs. Only Kenosha, Milwaukee, and Janesville have held out amongst the state’s biggest cities.

The local teachers’ union has rejected a call to make these concessions. The teachers in the city have refused to reopen the existing pact even though contracts for locally employed school secretaries, carpenters, painters, and other support staff recently inked a contract that includes the mandated contributions. In short, teachers are being protected from these concessions while other employees in the district, including substitute teachers, are making the necessary sacrifices to save jobs in Kenosha’s schools.

Kenosha Superintendent Dr. Michele Hancock has placed the blame for not reopening contract talks to include job-saving provisions on the Kenosha Education Association – the local teachers’ union. In a letter to teachers in March, Hancock reiterated that the district was in favor of amending the previous contract: “Let me state emphatically, the District has asked the KEA to reopen the contract.” However, the deal has gone unchanged so far.

The pact in question is a two-year deal that would fall under Act 10 regulations when it expires in 2013, but currently does not include the significant contribution package included in many other districts. KEA Executive Director Joe Kiriaki has been steadfast in his group’s refusal to reopen the contract that had been approved in the middle of the 2010-2011 school year. An email to teachers from his desk suggests that a growing rift between KEA and the school board may play a role in this standoff.

“What is becoming more and more clear is that the current administration is no longer interested in having a collaborative working relationship with the KEA and its leadership,” Kiriaki wrote on March 23, 2011. “They are pushing toward establishing a more adversarial relationship; and in the end this will only hurt the District, the staff, and ultimately the kids.”

The KEA’s defense of its contract has been fierce, even at the expense of the jobs of over 200 of its members. Since the district alone cannot ignite these negotiations, KEA’s refusal has left the district to figure out how to overcome a $33 million funding gap. Without negotiations and Act 10’s cost-saving tools to fall back on, this means that hundreds of full-time teachers will lose their jobs.

Because of the ‘last-in, first-out’ seniority system which the unions had previously negotiated, these cuts will affect the youngest class of teachers in the district. Many of the educators who are facing layoff notices started in 2007 or later. As a result, some of Kenosha’s most eager and brightest teachers may find themselves looking for work when August rolls around. Though there’s still time to reopen the 2011-2013 contract and retain hundreds of teachers in the district, KEA’s strong-willed refusals suggest that Kenosha’s educators are willing to cut off their noses to spite their own faces.

Should the tension between the Kenosha school board and its teachers continue, many good teachers will be out of work. While hundreds of educators will suffer, it is the 23,000 + students that will hurt the most as a result.