How Court Ruling Upends One District’s Bottom Line

By James Wigderson

Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

According to Waukesha School District Superintendent Todd Gray, the timing was really unfortunate for Dane County Circuit Court Judge Juan Colas’ decision to overturn Act 10. “Had we gotten a decision like this in April, May or June, it would have been easier to deal with.”

Act 10, the collective bargaining reform for public employees signed into law last year, is now in limbo after being in effect for more than a year. So far Act 10 has saved the state and local governments more than $1 billion.

The Waukesha School District was able to take advantage of the law right away in finding savings because they had not signed a collective bargaining agreement with the union the first time the state Supreme Court declared the law valid. A recent study estimated the district saved $6 million last year and will save another $1 million this year in insurance costs thanks to Act 10.

Now the district is still negotiating with the teachers union over wages for the 2011-2012 school year, but those talks were initially delayed because of Colas’ ruling. The district and the union resumed talks earlier this week. The district is prepared to offer a 0.5% increase in salary benefits for the 2011-12 school year, but further talks are on hold until mid-November.

But the timing of the decision affects more than just the contract negotiations. Gray points out that the school district tax levy is still capped thanks to Act 32, separate legislation from Act10. If there are more costs because benefits are again included in the collective bargaining, Gray said it would be, “very tough to cover that increase.”

“That means we would have to find other savings in the budget to fix it. Making big cuts to an already tight budget would mean cuts to services and programs.”

He added, “At this late date there are not a lot of places to cut from.”

On top of the reduced aid for the district this year, Gray described the court decision’s possible effects as, “salt on the wound.”

According to Gray, he is having a hard time understanding the court’s decision. After all, different public employee unions have been treated differently in the past. Gray pointed to the Qualified Economic Offer (QEO) for teachers that allowed school districts to avoid going to arbitration if they made an offer to increase salary and fringe benefits combined 3.8%. He also said former Governor Jim Doyle changed the arbitration law to specifically benefit teachers, but that was not challenged.

“It’s very confusing to me,” he said.

The Waukesha School District is not the only district with negotiations on hold and school budgets up in the air due to Colas’ ruling. While the Madison School District is rushing pell mell to get a deal done with the union before Colas’ decision is struck down, as is expected, other districts like Waukesha are stuck in a holding pattern.

However, this is the second time that chaos in Madison has prevented the timely negotiation of a contract with the teachers union.

“I think it’s badly thought out,” Gray said. “The school year is off to a good start and this is a distraction we really don’t need.”

As school districts like Waukesha wrestle with Judge Colas’ ruling, they won’t be able to take any comfort if Act 10 is upheld as constitutional by the state Supreme Court. After all, there are other judges in Madison, and Act 10 is also being challenged in federal court. That Act 10 is working to reduce costs for school districts across the state is not the concern of WEAC and the local teachers unions.