Janesville33.1°

JEA won't reopen contract

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MARCIA A. NELESEN
August 31, 2011
— The Janesville Education Association will not meet with the school board to consider reopening its contract to help close the district's $2.1 million budget deficit.

The 18-member executive board of the JEA voted Monday. President Dave Parr declined to reveal the number of votes for and against.


Parr called the executive board discussion "arduous" and said board members found no rationale to reopen discussions.


Why would they? asked Kevin Murray, one of the school board members who helped negotiate the contract.


People should put themselves in teachers' shoes, Murray said.


"You know that within a year-and-a-half to two years, your contract could be diluted to a shell of itself," Murray said. "So why would you want to change things?"


School Board President Bill Sodemann and Superintendent Karen Schulte said Monday's vote was disappointing.


They said they had "creative" options that could have included changes to teacher working conditions, for example, in exchange for financial considerations.


The current three-year contact was negotiated before state legislation passed this summer requiring public workers to pay half their pension contributions. The legislation also removed most collective bargaining rights.


The Janesville teachers contract protects them from the effects of the law until June 30, 2013.


The school board had asked the JEA to meet and talk about reopening the contract to help close the district's budget deficit. The board's remaining options include more budget cuts, tax increases and tapping a reserve fund.


The board already has cut the equivalent of about 110 full-time jobs. About 50 of those were to adjust for declining enrollments.


The 2012-13 budget deficit is projected at $9 million, much of that because of pay increases and benefit costs for teachers, custodians, clerks, aides and others.


Murray said the teachers contract was bargained in good faith and guarantees good pay and benefits, which in turn attract good teachers.


Murray said he didn't have control over the fact that Gov. Scott Walker reduced public education funding statewide over two years by about $800 million.


Some board members are "anxious for the contract to be over so they can do what they wish," Murray said.


"I think that makes a lot of fear of the unknown."


Sodemann and Schulte said they had hoped the JEA would at least listen to options the board has to offer.


Teachers, for example, could have negotiated a change in transfer language. They could have agreed to a smaller contribution to their pensions or considered a pay freeze or a furlough day.


"However, this is the decision the executive committee has made," Schulte said. "I will respect that decision, and we will move forward with the 2011-12 school year."


Parr said members of the executive board talked to Schulte and heard the options.


The end result would have been concessions, Parr said.


"And that's not really negotiating. That's just making concessions," he said.


Sodemann questioned why the executive board did not let all of the teachers vote, which he said would have been more democratic.


Parr believes the executive board has a good idea of what teachers want.


In addition, any teacher can call a meeting of the membership at any time with a petition signed by 25 members, he said.


"There's been no call for a membership meeting."


One such petition was presented last spring, and a vote was taken whether to reopen the contract, Parr said. The vote was 740 to 0.


A larger group of union representatives will meet Monday, Sept. 12, and the issue could be discussed then, Parr said.


The board can balance the budget this year in ways other than relying on teachers, Parr said.


School board members "have the ability to tax. They're coming to the realization that not raising any tax levy for the operating budget is a harmful process, and there are repercussions."


Sodemann said the board would have to deal with the current year's deficit with a combination of cuts, tax increases and money from the reserve. The teachers contract does not allow layoffs at this point.


"2013 is going to honestly be the more daunting year" with more layoffs, more taxes and more money siphoned from the reserves, Sodemann said.


"Perhaps the board will have to go deeper into benefits when it can in 2013 (after the contract expires) to pay back the fund balance," he said.


Sodemann said he hasn't taken any formal surveys or polls, but he suspects the idea of a tax increase would be more palatable to taxpayers if they saw other things happen, such as a contract change.


Parr was asked how he would answer residents who believe teachers should contribute more if taxpayers are expected to contribute more.


"It goes both ways," Parr said.


Teachers were trapped for 19 years under the qualified economic offer law, which allowed districts to impose wage and benefit increases totaling no more than 3.8 percent, he said. During those years, the board could have doled out larger raises by using money left over in the health care account.


"Do we know our school district is in trouble? Yes," Parr answered.


"We also know it didn't have to be in trouble."


The board's decision to keep taxes low means its clear intent is to whittle away at the school district, he said.


"They're saying our community does not want us to maintain our services."


Parr does not believe the board would have saved teacher jobs if the teachers had contributed financially to the budget.


The school district recently explained that it has about $3 million more available than anticipated because of budgeted-but-unspent reserve funds and other revenues, and Parr noted that the board has not called back employees.



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