Wigderson Fires Back

By James Wigderson Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

Local blogger and MPS teacher Jay Bullock had an interesting reaction to my latest op-ed for the MacIver Institute, “the title of this post is the sound of my head asploding.” I’m not sure what “asploding” is, although I could make an inference from the structure of the word that it refers to a painful cranial-anal impact.

But let’s attempt to answer some of Bullock’s criticisms, shall we? Bullock “fisked” my op-ed, meaning that he took statements out of context and then answered them to suit his purposes. My original statement is in italics with Bullock’s comments underneath. I respond below Bullock.

[W]hen MPS asked the union to make concessions in the pension plan to mitigate the loss of state and federal aid, the teachers union refused.

Bullock – False. The district knew federal stimulus funds were drying up, and they predicted that a likely Republican majority in Madison would trim the expected increase in per-student funding. So they asked the union to make concessions and we did.

It’s interesting that Bullock starts here, because if he had read the entire op-ed before writing his blog post he would have seen that I addressed the very concession that he points to. In fact, in the same blog post he later criticizes the number that I used in the article discussing those concessions (I’ll deal with that in a moment). So either I mentioned those concessions or I didn’t. It’s pretty clear that I did or else Bullock would not have criticized the number I used.

But the concessions Bullock mentions are beside the point. Those were last fall during the contract negotiations and not in response to the district’s recent request which was refused by the union. Ironically, Bullock himself criticized the union for not making some concessions to avoid teacher layoffs, but here he says my statement is false.

But even taking my statement out of context to criticize it, Bullock is still wrong. Why? While MPS and the union reached an agreement in October, as I point out in article the contract was not ratified by either party until much after the election. The warning signs were there that drastic budget action was coming. MPS did not vote on the contract until December 2nd, well after it was clear that real changes were coming.

There was no need to rush into an agreement at that point. After all, the two sides had been without an agreement for some time. Oh, wait, there was a reason to rush. The union had to fleece the district while the superintendent and the school board were willing to be fleeced.

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.

Bullock – First, let’s dispense with the newspeak. It’s not a new pension contribution–the pension contribution doesn’t change, as it is set by state law at 11.6%. (The state likes to guarantee minimum income to its top-notch pension program.) It’s a 5.8% salary cut, is what it is, and I won’t call it anything else. It says something about what Wiggy and his ilk believe about their own position that they lack the guts to come right out and say they think teachers are paid too much. Man up, James. Just say it.

It’s good that Bullock the English teacher is willing to confess to using Newspeak in his analysis. Under the current contract, the pension contribution is entirely on the part of the district. The change requested – and supposedly agreed to by Mary Bell of WEAC in an effort to stave off collective bargaining changes – is that the teachers contribute 5.8% of their salary to their pensions rather than the district bearing the whole pension contribution. Just like employees in the private sector, public employees would also contribute towards their retirement. I’m sure it will be news to Mary Bell that she needs to “man up” and say she thinks the teachers are paid too much.

Bullock – But second, the union did not say no. The union said it would be happy to negotiate a salary give back once the power to negotiate was restored by the legislature.

Sure sounds like “no” to me, and it did to Bullock as well when he wrote, “As I argued on this very blog and privately with MTEA leaders, there were things we could give up that would not mean significant additional hardship but that might save some of our colleagues’ jobs. The Board and MPS are not the problem here, and pretending that they are doesn’t help; taking a stand to draw attention to the damage being done to the state’s educational system by the Walker-Fitzgerald regime doesn’t keep my class sizes down.”

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.

Bullock – Switching health care plans would not have saved the kind of money the simple-minded media suggested it would. In addition, almost every single one of those teachers was recalled, after Dr. Thornton took a look at real needs and the actual budget available. He stood up for teachers when his predecessor would not.

In June, 2010, MPS explained how they calculated the savings from changing the health coverage. “The difference between the current PPO and the proposed EPO is $4,512 for single plans and $7,380 for family plans. The district current pays for 2,610 single PPOs and 4,810 family PPOs. Based on those figures, switching plans would save MPS $11,776,320 on single plans and $35,497,800 on family plans, for a total savings of $47.3 million. Since each teacher costs about $100,000 a year (salary and compensation), $47.3 million could pay for about 472 positions.”

The union was not interested in the explanation, as it didn’t matter to them. Pat O’Mahar, MTEA Interim Executive Director, was interviewed on public television and asked if the district could prove its numbers, would the union be willing to make the change?

“I don’t believe our members should ever be asked that question in the context of having no choice. What we have in the contract now for teachers is the two different choices, and over 80% of our members choose the more traditional PPO plan than the HMO. The 20% that choose the HMO, that’s their choice, but we know from our surveys of our members, from bargaining, that our members are just like all of the other teachers in the rest of the state. There is no district has only an HMO option for teachers. And I don’t believe going forward that this district should not provide the benefits that all the other teachers in the state have, especially when our salaries are at the bottom of the surrounding districts.”

I don’t know how anyone could interpret that other than the union was willing to sacrifice a number of its members just to keep health benefits the same. Even if Bullock disagrees with the numbers, the statement by O’Mahar was pretty clear.

As for Thornton standing up for teachers, Bullock neglects to mention the one-time federal teacher bailout money. But look how Thornton’s kindness was repaid.

This is also the same teachers union still fighting to get taxpayer-funded Viagra included in their prescription drug plans.

Bullock – This is just a bald lie.

I don’t care what Bullock shaves in the privacy of his own home, but it is true. MPS had to spend over $20,000 in legal fees to defend itself from a lawsuit over coverage of Viagra. Now the issue is on a different track, a complaint with the Equal Rights Division of the State of Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development. I guess Bullock isn’t up on these things.

Surely some teachers [sic] jobs could be saved if they privatized food service, painting and other services and cut down on the Administrative bloat, for example.

Bullock – False again. MPS food service runs a surplus, for example, and the budget this year makes larger cuts to administration, relatively, than to teaching.

The article Bullock links to is an op-ed by MPS Board Member Terry Falk who spends much of the article describing the race and socio-economic status of MPS food service employees but does not mention any statistics disproving that the food service program would benefit from privatization. While Falk claims the program runs a surplus now, he points out that it has been supported financially by MPS in the past. Perhaps MPS will learn what most large businesses have learned, it pays to outsource the cafeteria operations.

Or, maybe MPS will see this as a good reason to sell off a few empty buildings.

Bullock – What, does Wiggy not check the daily? Is his Bing broken? MPS is well on the way. In addition, the cost of those excess buildings is a pittance–barely ten teachers’ worth.

Bullock links to a blog post in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that points out, thanks to State Senator Alberta Darling and Milwaukee Common Council President Willie Hines, the legislature passed a law that allows the city of Milwaukee to decide what should happen with vacant buildings owned by MPS.

Let’s look at the facts. MPS is not “well on the way.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article says MPS moved to remove the label of “surplus” from the vacant properties to avoid allowing the city of Milwaukee to take control. MPS is hostile to the possibility that independent charter schools and choice schools might purchase the properties. MPS is also spending $670,160 to do a complete facilities plan. We’ll see if the result is an actual plan to rid the district of surplus property or if it will be used to justify hanging onto the estimated $34.7 million in unused property costing taxpayers over $1 million annually to maintain.

Hey, a million here and a million there, and soon we’re talking a school system budget.

By the way, I would be interested to find out which ten of Bullock’s colleagues he considers more surplus than the empty buildings he would not want to sell to independent charter and choice schools.

A point about the estimated savings from a pay freeze in the contract that was ratified by MPS last December: Bullock takes issue with me using the number $50 million. At the time the contract was ratified by the union and the MPS board, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported the savings as $50 million over two years. Bullock points to a chart by the union showing a total savings of $94 million. Either way, according to the union chart the district could save an additional $72 million if the union had agreed with the district on contributing to the pension at the level called for by Walker.

One final point to address:

[T]he contract agreement was at a time of a great fiscal crisis at the state level.

Bullock – Additionally false. It has been pretty well documented that Wisconsin is not, in fact, broke. If we were broke, why would Scott Walker and the GOP be offering hundreds of millions billions in tax breaks?

Let’s start with Bullock’s source. Bullock links to Juan Cole, a leftwing blogger, who actually wrote of the Wisconsin budget, “…it has no enduring structural shortfall in revenues.” He also blamed the budget deficit on Governor Scott Walker’s economic plan, ignoring that the budget deficit at the time was from the last budget of Governor Jim Doyle. Bullock might as well have been quoting a Ouija board.

Now, I could cheat and point out I did not say “broke” but “great fiscal crisis.” However, I am going to go for broke.

When Walker took office, the state had an estimated $3.6 billion structural deficit plus a shortfall in the last Doyle budget of $137 million. Wisconsin owed the State of Minnesota nearly $60 million, the Patients’ Compensation Fund over $200 million and the federal government for our unemployment compensation fund reserve loan $1.4 billion.

Under Doyle and the Democratic-controlled legislature, the last budget not only relied upon one-time federal stimulus money for operating expenses, the Democrats actually raised taxes by over $2 billion. Still, it wasn’t enough to keep up with the increased spending and the state finished the year with a $3.6 billion deficit.

That looks like broke to me, as in, “They done broke it.”

I realize that Bullock, an expatriate of Canada, might have to cut his ration of back bacon with the changes in school funding. I understand he might take it personally. But his own words contradict his defense of the teachers union, he cannot hide from the actual timeline of the contract approval, and his union has made it very clear that they are more than willing to chop teaching positions to preserve the perks of the seniority system.