Madison Teachers’ Greed Could Bite Them, Hurt Kids

Madison Teachers Can Learn From MPS’s Troubles When it Comes to Rushing Contracts in the Face of Statewide Decisions

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

Madison’s teachers will be jockeying for a new contract in light of the recent ruling striking down major parts of Act 10. However, they may want to examine how locked-in contracts have hindered Wisconsin’s largest school district before making any radical changes that could affect the state of education in the state capital for years to come.

The Madison teacher’s union – Madison Teachers Incorporated, or MTI – earned a legal victory last week when their lawsuit invalidated several aspects of Act 10, specifically the parts that restricted collective bargaining between public employees and the state. It is currently unknown whether or not the state will receive a stay of the collective bargaining limits while the governor’s office appeals the Dane County judge’s ruling.

Despite the relative instability, the Madison teachers are jumping at the chance to take advantage of a potential bargaining window. This echoes back to a similar situation we saw in Wisconsin just two years earlier. In 2010, the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association rushed to ratify a new contract in advance of Scott Walker taking office as governor. However, their four-year pact has ended up putting hundreds of teaching jobs on the chopping block over its lifespan, and caused clear fiscal harm to the district.

Milwaukee Public Schools and its teachers came to a contract agreement on November 23, 2010. The pact they signed was a four-year deal that covered the previous school year and the next three. While the deal was approved after the 2010 state election period, the contract that had been agreed upon had been announced in late October.

MPS and MTEA came to terms with a pact that on the surface created modest savings from previous projections but also locked the district into three static years of salaries, benefits, and work rule and personnel management arrangements. This provided short-term stability for employees, but also meant that MPS had their hands tied when the 2011-2013 budget came down. While the district was forced to deal with a reduction in state funding, it wasn’t able to use the money-saving tools included in Act 10 to restore the money that had been lost. In order to preserve their benefits and collective bargaining through the balance of their contract, MPS teachers shut out any chance of making the health care and pension changes that would have restored tens of millions of dollars to their district.

As a result, Milwaukee Public Schools faced significant shortfalls when it came time to work with their new budget. A combination of reduced state funding and the expiration of one-time federal stimulus funds left the district scrambling. 519 staff members, including 354 teachers, received layoff notices in 2011. That was 37 more notices than had been mailed out in the prior year. While many of the teachers were able to avoid layoffs and return to work in 2010, the district’s lack of flexibility in 2011 made several of these cuts unfortunately unavoidable.

Milwaukee’s commitment to their four-year deal ultimately cost several teachers their jobs. Rather than reopening their contract and accepting the benefit concessions and collective bargaining limits, the MTEA instead chose to roll the dice with layoffs that were based not on merit, but on seniority. As a result, young, promising teachers were forced to carry the burden of that decision. This has set a dangerous precedent that MTI and the Madison Metropolitan School District may be staring down in the face of further debates over the scope of Act 10.

MTI is riding high after their legal victory, but there is still plenty to be cautious about when it comes to providing the most for their schools. Jumping into a new contract a year prior to the expiration of their current one doesn’t say much as to the confidence of their recent legal victory. Milwaukee’s precedent also paints a cautionary tale for the local educators. Teachers and staff members at MPS had their hands tied behind a long contract extension that left little flexibility in the face of state funding reductions. When cuts had to be made, the union in Milwaukee was forced to make hundreds of teaching jobs expendable rather than implementing benefit concessions that could have kept more educators in their classroom.

If MTI follows a similar path and Act 10 is reinstated upon appeal, Madison would be in a similar situation. They’d have to weigh the benefits of holding true to their contract versus potential layoffs. That’s why they’ll have to tread carefully in their contract negotiations if they want to avoid another MPS-type gambit. The people who would be most affected by folly here wouldn’t be the teachers, however – it would be the students.