Janesville teachers ask for contract meeting

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Frank Schultz
Friday, October 25, 2013

 JANESVILLE—The Janesville teachers union is asking for a sit-down with the district's contract-bargaining team, but it's not clear whether that will happen.

The union made the request this week in the wake of Monday's ruling by a Dane County judge that appears to affect the bargaining status of school- and municipal-employee unions across the state.

Trouble is, no one knows exactly what effect the ruling will have.

Asked for comment, the school district issued a short statement noting that the school board and union are still working with a state mediator after failing to come to an agreement on wages for this year.

“There are questions the district has asked of the mediator that remain to be answered,” the statement says.

Those questions need to be answered before officials will know how to proceed, said Stan Milam, interim district spokesman.

Judge Juan Colas ruled Monday that his earlier ruling—that parts of Act 10 are unconstitutional—applies to all public employee unions in the state and not just the unions that brought the lawsuit.

Most unions statewide, including the Janesville Education Association, have canceled or at least delayed union-recertification votes because of last week's ruling. Act 10 required annual recertification votes.

What other effects Colas' ruling might have are unknown, and the ruling could be overturned. The state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on an appeal of the case Nov. 11.

Bob Butler, staff counsel for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said the Supreme Court doesn't have to rule until next summer, but it is likely to rule sooner.

The Janesville School Board and teachers union had been bargaining under the terms of Act 10, which allows negotiations only on base wages and limits any increase to inflation.

A state mediator met once with both sides, but without success. Both sides have been waiting for the mediator to declare an impasse, clearing the way for the school board to impose a settlement.

Act 10 gives school boards the final word on contracts, and that procedure still appears to be in effect.

Butler said Colas issued his ruling from the bench but promised that a written ruling would follow soon. The written version has yet to appear, which makes interpreting the ruling more difficult, Butler said.

If a school board wanted to negotiate a contract defining wages now, it could do so, Butler believes, but the definition of what wages are could be questioned.

The union might say that health insurance and pension payments affect wages and so should be negotiated.

Or, a union might contend that work hours are a wage issue because longer hours mean less pay per hour. The district could counter that teachers are salaried, so the number of hours is not at issue, Butler said.

The Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission would rule on such disputes, Butler said.

Janesville union President Dave Parr said the union has asked for negotiations teams from both sides to “discuss latest developments … and come to a mutually beneficial agreement.”

Parr has heard from people who say the Colas ruling means the teachers' old contract, which expired June 30, should be in effect until a new contract is settled.

The school board has moved forward since June 30, establishing a handbook that spells out work rules. That's something the old contract did.

The handbook also spells out new health insurance and other benefits, making substantial changes from the old contract and reducing teachers' take-home pay.

Parr suggests the two sides forge an agreement now without regard for what courts might do. The final ruling on multiple lawsuits could take years, Parr said.

If the final ruling says Act 10 was unconstitutional, teachers could be in line to get back pay, Parr said.

“This could be incredibly costly to them, so we want to work something out to avoid that,” Parr said.

“There are still so many unknowns. Why let the courts make decisions for Janesville? I'd much prefer to have something done that benefits everyone and benefits the community,” Parr said.

Butler finds Parr's back-pay scenario “incredibly improbable.”

Courts have held employers harmless for making good-faith efforts to follow laws that are later ruled unconstitutional, Butler said.

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