Teachers union threatening to sue Janesville School Board

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Frank Schultz
Thursday, March 14, 2013

— The Janesville teachers union is threatening to sue if the school board does not agree to contract negotiations.

Union President Dave Parr sent the school board a letter Wednesday saying the union would sue if the board had not agreed by 5 p.m. today.

School board President Bill Sodemann later spoke with Parr and convinced Parr to extend the deadline until the board had a chance to talk.

Sodemann noted that a board meeting requires a 24-hour public notice, which would mean the board could not decide right away.

Parr said the deadline is now next Wednesday, after the board meets behind closed doors on Tuesday night.

Parr said the reason for the ultimatum is that teachers who are considering retirement must make a decision by April 15, and the decision for many hinges on what their post-retirement benefits would be.

But the school board wants to change the benefit to save money, and anyone who retires next year could potentially have less of a benefit than those who retire now.

It’s possible that the change could preserve the old benefit for a number of years so some teachers would not need to retire now in order to get the same benefit.

Under the current, longstanding system, teachers who put in enough years can get district health insurance extended into their retirement, bridging the gap between their retirement date and Medicare eligibility.

Sodemann and Superintendent Karen Schulte said that concern was heard loud and clear at Tuesday night’s school board meeting, when employees spoke out at a listening session, and the board is working on a solution for them.

That solution apparently was the topic of the board’s closed-door session Tuesday, but Sodemann declined to say much about what the board decided.

Sodemann said the board is “working on a solution” and will present it to leaders of all three district unions by week’s end.

Parr said he talked to Sodemann and board member Kristin Hesselbacher two weeks ago and thought progress was made on the retirement benefit.

Parr said he understood the other side needed to consult with its attorneys and meet to make decisions. But nothing was forthcoming after those two things happened.

“I got the impression they really weren’t moving forward with anything, and our members really need to know by April 15,” Parr said.

Parr said Tuesday’s appeals court ruling shows that Act 10, which removed most union bargaining rights for most public employees, shows that negotiations are now required.

The court declined to temporarily block a Dane County judge’s ruling that Act 10 is unconstitutional, but the appeal of that ruling is still pending.

Parr’s stance echoed that of the state’s largest teacher union, of which the local union is a member.

The Wisconsin Education Association Council hailed Tuesday’s court ruling, saying it “sends a strong message to school districts that now is the time to act and bargain in good faith with local associations. Our schools will succeed when we all come together and find solutions.”

Superintendent Karen Schulte said the board can’t negotiate because it’s not clear what can be negotiated. It’s not clear, for instance, whether bargaining for wages—which is allowed under Act 10—includes only base wages or whether it also includes economic benefits such as health insurance, Schulte said.

If the board negotiates without knowing the answer, the union could sue later, Schulte said.

It’s also not clear that the Act 10 ruling even applies outside of Dane County, Schulte said.

“But again, he has his set of attorneys. We have ours,” Schulte said.

Parr countered other districts are negotiating contracts without any problem. He mentioned Middleton and Whitewater.

“It seems to us they’re just stalling. … I just don’t sense the urgency from the school board to get something worked out,” Parr said.

Last updated: 7:57 am Monday, April 29, 2013

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