By James Wigderson
Special guest perspective for the MacIver Institute
This time the teachers unions picked New Berlin as the place to make a stand Monday night. The New Berlin School District considered an employee handbook to set the employee benefits for the upcoming school year, and teachers came from all over to protest the changes.
The creation of the handbook is the result of the passage of Act 10 that limited teachers’ collective bargaining ability to wages, leaving benefits and working conditions in the hands of the elected school boards and administrators.
New Berlin is using the savings from changes in sick days and other policies to compensate for nearly $3 million in cuts in funding at the state level. The New Berlin School District budget this year actually has a less than one percent cut in the tax levy for the upcoming year.
Recently the Greenfield School District was the scene of another protest by teachers when the district passed its employee handbook. An overflow crowd of teachers at that meeting disrupted the proceedings and even prompted a call to police to stand by to clear the room if necessary. At least one school board member was shouted down as he read a prepared statement. Despite the behavior of the protestors, the school board passed the handbook unanimously.
Anticipating another such possible scene of mayhem, the New Berlin School Board moved their meeting to the Performing Arts Center at New Berlin West High School to allow more people to attend. An announcement was made at the beginning of the regular meeting that the fire department would only allow as many people into the auditorium as there were seats. The board also made it clear that, although people from outside the district would be allowed to speak, the comment portion of the meeting would be limited to thirty minutes.
Still, union members came from all over to show their support for the New Berlin teachers, many of them wearing the color red so they could be easily identified.
What the union members may not have counted on was the presence of a large group of New Berlin taxpayers, many of them holding up signs protesting “union bullying.” About a third of the crowd were local taxpayers in support of the school district.
When a teacher named Dave spoke, he complained that property taxes in New Berlin has been going down instead of up. That prompted the crowd supporting the school board to cheer loudly, much to the consternation of the union supporters. Dave also found himself the subject of mock sympathy from members of the audience when he talked about having to put his children into before-school daycare, something that many parents in New Berlin already do to work jobs to afford the property taxes to fund the schools.
Diane Lazewski of the New Berlin Education Association, the local teachers union, noted the number of “stop union bullies” signs and accused the taxpayers holding them of calling the local teachers bullies. She then accused the taxpayers of acting like bullies because a few of them cheered and booed during the speeches, even as union supporters also interrupted speakers (all on their side to that point) with cheering and applause. Lazewski said she promised the school board that the teachers present would not be disruptive.
That promise came to a swift end when a local taxpayer, Mike, got up to speak on behalf of “the five and a half million taxpayers in the state of Wisconsin.” When he spoke in support of Governor Scott Walker, it was too much for the teachers who staged a “walkout” in protest, before the school board even took action on the proposed handbook.
After the teachers left the room, the remaining third of the audience stayed behind to watch the school board take up the motion to approve the handbook. School Board member Art Marquardt drew applause from the crowd when he said that the relationship has changed, “from where the union owned the conversation to one where the elected officials own the conversation.”
Earlier in the evening, a representative from the state teachers union, WEAC, and a resident of Fitchburg, explained why there were so many from outside the district in attendance. She said that teachers know that, “what happens in neighboring school districts frequently happens to the next school district.”
Perhaps she was right. Just as in Greenfield, the New Berlin School Board passed the handbook unanimously. The remaining third of the audience who were there in support of the handbook cheered in gratitude and then left.
Afterwards, New Berlin School Board member Art Marquardt said the school board voted unanimously to endorse the changes in collective bargaining for teachers when the governor proposed them. “So they thought they would come to New Berlin and change our minds by coming in here and trying to intimidate us – it was not going to happen.”
The decision in New Berlin continues a string of defeats for the teachers unions in Wisconsin, and comes on the same day WEAC announced that it would leave it up to the local affiliates whether or not they want to re-certify.
If there is a lesson from Monday night, WEAC may still be able to gin up a protest here and there, but it’s for naught when against a determined school board and equally determined taxpayers.