Janesville39.1°

Milton teacher contract headed to arbitration

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NEIL W. JOHNSON
June 4, 2010
— Officials say that an insurance squabble that has stalled contract talks in the Milton School District for months is headed for an arbitration hearing June 24.

Milton’s hearing will be closely watched, officials say, because it is seen as the first education labor arbitration to occur since the state overhauled its collective bargaining laws last year.


The overhaul means that for the first time since the early 1990s, Wisconsin school districts must reach union labor agreements without the safety net of a Qualified Economic Offer—a default pay and benefit increase districts used to settle contract impasses before they reach arbitration.


“I think there’s risks for both sides,” Superintendent Bernie Nikolay said in an interview this week.


District officials fear the district could end up paying out teacher compensation increases it can’t afford. Teachers union officials worry they’ll have to settle for diminished benefits with little to no pay increases.


Milton School District filed for arbitration in January, after negotiations with the teachers union for its 2009-2011 labor agreement became deadlocked. The union is working under terms of an expired contract.


At the heart of the impasse, officials say, is health insurance coverage.


The district has proposed the teachers union switch insurance carriers from the Wisconsin Education Association Trust to a Dean-Mercy policy.


The union, which has 200 members, doesn’t want to switch carriers, even though the district estimates it could save more than $600,000. Union members argue the change could mean less coverage and higher out-of-pocket costs.


“Some teachers are out-of-network and need care that Dean or Mercy won’t cover,” said Shelly Kress, president of Milton’s teachers union.


District officials told the Gazette earlier that under the district’s proposed healthcare switch, teachers choosing out-of-network providers could pay 20 percent more in out-of-pocket costs.


WEA UniServ Director Ted Lewis, who represents Milton’s teachers union, said the union has offered insurance concessions in its own contract proposal, including a proposal to switch to a prescription drug plan intended to “steer members into using less expensive drugs.”


He said the union also has offered to pay 2 percent of its insurance premium costs.


The district now pays the entire cost of the union’s healthcare premium.


The arbitration hearing will be June 24 at Milton High School Library. An arbitrator assigned by the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission will take proposals from the district and the teachers union. The arbitrator will hear arguments and testimony from both sides.


The arbitrator then has 60 days to decide on either the union or the district’s proposal.


The district and the teachers union will split costs to pay for the arbitration, but the district will have to pay for its own lawyer in the hearing from the district’s general fund, officials said.


Shana Lewis, the district’s attorney in the arbitration hearing, said she represented Iowa-Grant School District in Livingston in the summer of 2009, during arbitration over a similar insurance dispute.


At the time, the district had proposed the teachers union switch insurers from a WEA plan to a Dean plan. The school district won in the arbitration, and the union was forced to change carriers, she said.


Still, Lewis said that decision won’t impact Milton’s pending arbitration—and a decision in Milton’s arbitration wouldn’t necessarily impact other school districts facing arbitration.


“Arbitrators are permitted to adopt or disregard decisions of their fellow arbitrators as they see fit,” she said.


Ted Lewis disagrees.


“(The Milton arbitration) will be influential. There’s no disputing that. Arbitrators look at other arbitrators’ decisions,” he said.


Nikolay said he is “disappointed” the district is going into arbitration, but noted it’s still possible the two sides could come to an agreement before an arbitrator makes a final decision.


When asked if she thought that was likely, Kress was succinct:


“No,” she said.



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