School handbooks offer little direction for teacher pay

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Neil Johnson
Saturday, July 13, 2013

MILTON--A review of the Milton School District staff handbook—the district's guide for working conditions, and, essentially, its teacher contract under the rules of Wisconsin Act 10—shows barely a word about teacher pay.

Absent is any mention of how the district would reward staff who receive extra schooling or skills training.

There's no mention of merit pay to reward staff that are star performers.

There's nothing in the book about step and lane salary adjustments, which factor in staff experience and longevity to determine year-over-year pay increases.

The lack of language about teacher pay is no accident, Milton School Board and teachers union officials say.

Milton, like other school districts in the state, still is trying to get comfortable with provisions of Gov. Scott Walker's Act 10, the law put in place in 2011 that upended collective bargaining rules governing benefits, pay and compensation for most public employees, including school teachers.

“We're just kind of in wait-and-see mode—letting the dust settle with the state, and all the new rules. We haven't put in any thumbtacks in how it (the teacher handbook's rules on teacher pay) is going to look in the future,” Milton School Board member John Cruzan said.

The last two years have been a rocky time for budget planning for school districts statewide. It's been a time rife with huge cuts in state shared revenue and uncertainty over how to craft budgets, forge labor talks, write contracts and handbook rules amid the complex rules of Act 10.

Teacher pay how to set rules for determining teacher pay raises has taken a back seat as districts grapple with an overarching dilemma: continued uncertainty and constant shifts in how the state Legislature handles school funding and public education policy.

It's for that reason, Cruzan said, that the Milton School Board is hesitant to add hard rules for teacher pay to the staff handbook.

This spring, the Milton School Board cut about $860,000 from the district's budget. The cuts came amid earlier fears that the state's biennial budget would include no increase in per-student state aid—one of the main areas of revenue that fuels school operations. Now, Milton and other school districts locally and statewide are in the midst of calculating how their school budget forecasts could brighten amid a $150 per-student increase in state aid in the new state biennial budget.

With increases in state school funding and savings from a change in health plans, Milton has found it could now have a budget surplus of $130,000 shaping up, district officials estimate.

Milton's teachers union is asking the board to consider using part of the windfall for pay increases to teachers—particularly those who've earned master's degrees while Act 10 was going into effect. The proposed pay increase would be on top of a 2.07 percent increase in base pay that the board and union already agreed to this spring.

Michael Dorn, who is president of the Milton Education Association, the district's teachers union, said the board and the teachers union has had “fruitful” talks about the potential for an additional pay increase this year. Last week, the board's human resources committee pushed the issue forward for discussion by the full board later this month.

If the school board did agree to additional pay increases for teachers this year, the board would viewed the raises as a “stopgap measure,” not a precedent for how pay would be handled in future years.

Dorn said he believes the board has been idle on the issue not because it's a sticky subject that anyone's trying to avoid. He acknowledged Milton is in the same situation as other area school districts whose teacher handbooks don't touch the subject of teacher pay.

“Frankly, no one has that ironed out. Everyone is waiting to see what somebody else does. We're all starting with ground zero,” Dorn said.

Yet, Dorn said he feels it's time the Milton School Board begins moving toward forging handbook rules on teacher pay.

For two years, the district has frozen so-called “lane” pay increases—salary bumps for staff who've received more education. The lag happened in part because of the impact of Act 10 rules and education funding cuts in the last state biennial budget, which prompted major budget cuts by Milton and other local school districts.

Under Act 10 rules, teachers unions are no longer allowed to negotiate for those types of pay increases, although school boards can opt to grant such pay increases.

As a result, Dorn said, about 25 teachers in Milton who earned master's degrees or continuing education credits in 2012 have “never received any pay raise (for earning advanced credits), yet new people hired at the same time got credit for having advanced degrees. It's created a little bit of an iniquity,” Dorn said.

“That's something that definitely needs to be addressed. You shouldn't be rewarded more for being a new hire than for being someone who's been loyal to the district for years," Dorn said.

Cruzan said it could be weeks or months before the school board has developed any detailed plans on teacher pay issues, but he called the teacher handbook a work in progress.

“It's not something that's set in stone or sacrosanct,” he said.

Dorn said he doesn't expect the board to underwrite a system of teacher pay that mirrors methods used before Act 10 went into effect.

“We all understand it's a new world,” Dorn said. “It's probably not going to be a system of (salary schedule) steps and lanes, but it could be something that looks at similar factors—experience, expertise and other things,” Dorn said.

Performance-based salary increases aren't part of the discussion yet, and Cruzan said the Milton School Board isn't ready to dive into the issue. He said it's difficult to immediately define how indicators such as test scores and student achievement correlate to teacher performance.

“People, I think, are apprehensive about that. It isn't defined. People don't want to be measured by things they don't necessarily have control over,” Cruzan said.

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