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Milton teacher contract dispute in arbitration this week

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NEIL W. JOHNSON
June 23, 2010
— A months-old teacher contract dispute at the Milton School District is set to enter arbitration this week.

At 10 a.m. Thursday, the school district and Milton Education Association—the school district’s teachers union—will submit separate contract proposals, each arguing their case in front of an appointed arbitrator at the Milton High School library.


Both sides submitted proposals in April after contract talks stalled and the district filed for arbitration over a 2009-2011 labor agreement earlier this year. During the 15-month labor dispute, the union has worked under the terms of an expired contract.


Following a response period officials say could stretch through mid-July, the case’s arbitrator, an appointed official from the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission, will render a decision.


Officials say the decision could come any time between late July and early November. It would uphold either the school district’s contract proposal or the union’s proposal—not a blend of both.


“It will be for the whole enchilada, so to speak,” said Sue Bauman, a mediator and grievance arbitrator with the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission.


At the center of the dispute is health insurance coverage. In separate proposals, the union seeks to keep its health care coverage through The Wisconsin Education Association Trust, while the district proposes a contract that could save $1 million in costs through a switch in carriers to a Dean-Mercy health plan.


Union officials argue the change would mean higher out-of-pocket costs for teachers who get services outside of the Dean-Mercy network and that those extra costs would outstrip any pay raise the district is offering teachers.


The WEA Trust projects about a 4 percent increase in costs for the union’s coverage in 2010-2011—significantly less than the 10 percent increases district officials had predicted.


“It helps us, but it’s still a small piece of the equation. There’s still a huge difference in the amounts for health premiums,” Superintendent Bernie Nikolay told the Gazette.


WEA UniServ director Ted Lewis, who is representing the union in arbitration, said the union is offering concessions in its contract proposal that would eliminate cost increases in its insurance plan.


The union has offered to opt for a less expensive prescription drug card and has offered to pick up 2 percent of its premiums, Lewis said.


Lewis said union concessions would lower rates for the WEA Trust plan from $769.66 per month for single coverage to $766.23 per month—essentially holding the line on costs for the union’s health care plan.


Thursday’s hearing will mark the first education labor arbitration hearing in the state since the state overturned its Qualified Economic Offer law—a default pay and benefit increase school districts had used since the early 1990’s to settle contract impasses before they reached arbitration.


Officials have predicted the Milton case will be closely watched throughout the state by other school districts who are facing the possibility of arbitration.


On Tuesday, Nikolay said the district had given the union an 11th-hour settlement proposal.


Nikolay wouldn’t disclose details of the proposal, and he wouldn’t say whether its terms relate to insurance coverage, but he said it differs from the district’s arbitration offer.


“There’s some unique things in it that I hope would be intriguing to the membership. It’s definitely different than the (district’s proposal) going into the arbitration,” Nikolay said.


The union has the option to agree to the settlement at any time prior to the arbitrator’s decision, but Nikolay said he doubts the union will have enough time to consider the proposal before the hearing Thursday.


Bauman, the mediator who certified the union and the district’s final contract proposals in April, said it’s possible that prior to the start of the arbitration hearing Thursday, the case’s arbitrator could offer the two sides a chance to re-enter mediation over the contract dispute.


In that case, she said, the hearing’s arbitrator essentially become a mediator on the spot.


But based on her knowledge of the case, Bauman said it’s unlikely either side will agree to a settlement outside of arbitration—at least not before Thursday’s hearing.


“My gut feeling is this will probably go straight through to a hearing,” Bauman said.



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