Most MPS Layoffs Could Have Been Avoided

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Gregory Thornton put out a statement Friday on YouTube to Milwaukee’s teachers. Thornton wished them a Happy Independence Day and said those trying to find someone to blame for the recent layoff announcements are giving him a headache.

“Remember how we started this year. One team, one goal, and one MPS.”

That may have been how Thornton perceived the beginning of the year, but unless everyone was on the same team with the goal of really screwing things up, Thornton is missing a few people with that team spirit. Now his school district is preparing to layoff 354 teachers.

MPS will be getting $84 million less in state aid in the next state budget. However, when MPS asked the union to make concessions in the pension plan to mitigate the loss of state and federal aid, the teachers union refused. Not only is the union lacking team spirit in its relationship with MPS, it’s lacking a team spirit among its own members. Protecting the benefits of the union’s most senior members will result in the unemployment of 200 of the union’s members with less seniority.

Thornton says looking for someone to blame is causing him a headache. Perhaps it’s a guilt-induced stress migraine.

Last October, at the height of the race for governor, Thornton and the teachers union reached a tentative agreement on a contract through 2013. The agreement called for MPS teachers to contribute to the premium cost of their health care for the first time. Due to the health care contribution and a freeze in teacher pay for the first year, the estimated savings over the next two years was $50 million.

MPS will lose $82 million in federal funding with the end of the federal stimulus program at the end of 2011. The total MPS budget was $1.26 billion and the $82 million loss of funding results in a 6.5% reduction in total funding. A very modest reduction when compared to those in the private sector and a reduction that was very predictable as the federal funding was a one-time stimulus.

However, the contract agreement was at a time of a great fiscal crisis at the state level. Scott Walker was campaigning on bringing the budget under control without raising taxes and he was leading in the polls. On the other side was Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett who was also talking about bringing state spending under control.  Meanwhile the state under Governor Jim Doyle was not living up to the promise made under Governor Tommy Thompson to fund two-thirds of the state’s education costs. It was pretty clear that MPS was in danger of facing real cuts in funding, but MPS was locking in their labor costs.

Originally the union was supposed to ratify the contract in October, and the school board was also scheduled to approve the agreement in October. However, the union waited because, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, they wanted to make sure the members, “had all of the info and had the time to really think about the new terms.”

Walker was elected governor on November 2nd, 2010, before the union and MPS ratified the new contract. By November 6th, the Wisconsin State Journal was quoting Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald predicting that there would be “all-out war” in the spring with the unions over collective bargaining issues. “

Then-Governor-elect Walker was declaring the $3 billion budget hole “an economic emergency.” Already unions were claiming that Walker’s campaign was telling them not to ratify any contracts in December before Walker took office.  By Mid-November, Walker was calling on the Democrats who were still in the majority not to ratify any contracts with the State of Wisconsin Employee unions because he wanted to consider the issue when he took office as part of the effort to bring the state budget into balance.

Warning sirens should have been going off in the MPS Administration Building hallways. Instead, Thornton was touting the unprecedented agreement with MPS as one the major accomplishments of his first four months in Milwaukee.

The union did not ratify the contract until November 17th. Rather than wait to see what was going to happen with the new administration in Madison, the MPS board approved the contract on December 3rd. There was no compelling reason that the contract had to be approved at that time, but the MPS board went ahead anyway.

Now the school board and Dr. Thornton find themselves asking the teachers union to agree to the same pension contributions asked for by Walker. These contributions would be at the same level WEAC President Mary Bell said were never a problem, 5.8% of the teachers’ salaries.

Of course the MTEA said no to Thorton’s request. Many local public employee unions across the state have refused to even consider what the union bosses were telling the press in February were concessions they were willing to make.

In the case of the Milwaukee teachers union, this is the same union that in 2010 was willing to let 480 teachers go rather than switch health care plans. This is also the same teachers union still fighting to get taxpayer-funded Viagra included in their prescription drug plans.

Now the union (completely oblivious to what’s been happening in the private sector in the Obama economy and under the taxes of Jim Doyle) is asking private businesses to come up with the $94 million so the teachers union members can continue to have a pension program nearly unparalleled in the private sector.

Someone should remind the union that if the private sector had that kind of money laying around, they could invest it in the city’s choice schools and get more of a return for their investment.

The only ones that seem surprised by the union’s behavior of this are Thornton and the MPS Board. Unfortunately, MPS has now begun to lay off teachers, in part because they refused to see the changes that were coming, and in part because they aren’t better at making cuts.  The MacIver Institute has long-chronicled wasteful spending at MPS. Surely some teachers jobs could be saved if they privatized food service, painting and other services and cut down on the Administrative bloat, for example.

Or, maybe MPS will see this as a good reason to sell off a few empty buildings rather than worrying about whether Milwaukee School Choice Program schools will use them to educate children.

Thornton’s “One Team” concept sounds good but he needs to wake up to fact that the teachers union leadership are wearing different jerseys.

Only when the full impact of ACT 10 is fully in effect will MPS and districts across the state truly be able to celebrate Independence Day…from unions that don’t put children first.