MPS, Teachers’ Union Miss Opportunity to Put Students First

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

The trick for the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) to actually save money is to decide to actually save money. No matter what the state legislature does, it’s up to MPS and the teachers unions to actually follow through. However, even when the legislature gave MPS a second chance recently to save money, the membership of the teachers’ union killed it.

The leadership of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA) and MPS agreed to a deal that avoided layoffs in exchange for the teachers agreeing to forgo five days of pay. The problem with the plan is that the two sides had missed the time period when such changes could be made to the existing collective bargaining agreement without the entire collective bargaining agreement becoming null and void.

As Governor Scott Walker was preparing to take office, MPS and the MTEA reached a collective bargaining agreement despite (or perhaps, because) the likelihood of major changes coming to collective bargaining for public employees and the imposition of cost saving measures from Madison. This agreement between MPS and MTEA has prevented the district from taking advantage of the changes brought by Act 10.

It has also meant that any cost saving done by the Milwaukee school district when it came to benefits and salary had to be agreed upon by the union.

When the leadership of MTEA and MPS agreed to the salary change instead of layoffs, the two sides asked the state legislature to re-open the time period under which the two sides could make the change to the collective bargaining agreement.

MTEA then came under criticism from the teachers unions in Madison, Racine, Kenosha and Green Bay. They were afraid that any change in the collective bargaining agreement would be seen as a victory for Governor Scott Walker prior to the recall election.

Despite the criticism, the leadership of MTEA and MPS pressed forward with the plan, and the Republican-controlled legislature agreed to re-open the window to allow such changes.

However, as we have seen from the beginning of Walker’s term, it is one thing for union leadership to promise something, it’s another to see the union follow through. When it came time for the union membership to vote on the deal, over 58% of the union members voted against the concessions. Now MPS will have to find another way to save the $7 million in concessions the union members rejected.

This is not the first time the union decided to reject concessions despite the threat of layoffs. In 2010, MPS proposed changing health plans rather than laying off 480 teachers. The union rejected that concession, and only a timely infusion of federal money prevented the layoffs from occurring. In 2011, the union again rejected proposed benefits changes, this time an increased pension contribution. Again, despite the threat of layoffs, the union said no to the concessions.

It’s interesting to note that the 2011 proposed pension contribution was at the same level WEAC President Mary Bell had found agreeable if the state did not implement Act 10. Here was a case of the local union, dealing with a school district that signed a record four-year-deal to avoid the collective bargaining changes of Act 10, preferring not to live up to the opportunities for savings in the words of union leadership.

Now the MTEA membership has again rejected an opportunity to keep more teachers in the classrooms, and class sizes smaller for the students. They’ve chosen to sacrifice the younger teachers to layoffs, instead. So much for union solidarity.

According to Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators (WASDA) and Department of Public Instruction (DPI) survey data, two-thirds of the layoffs in 2011-2012 were in three districts, Milwaukee, Janesville and Kenosha. Not coincidentally, these three districts had collective bargaining agreements in place that prevented the districts from taking full advantage of Act 10 collective bargaining reforms.

The contract between MPS and MTEA finally expires in 2013. Ironically, we’ll actually be able to count the number of union members better served by the provisions of Act 10 than by the votes of their fellow union members.