Janesville32.9°

School talks break down

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
December 30, 2011
— Talks between the Janesville School Board and three employee unions have broken down.

People on both sides seem disappointed over the outcome. They had been scheduled to meet Thursday, but the meeting was canceled with no indication they would resume.


Talks were held with hopes by the school board that the unions would agree to concessions to help the district balance its budget.


School board member Lori Stottler said she had hoped the unions would have been willing to start paying at least a portion of their pension contributions, but the unions were not willing to discuss that.


"We've hit a point where this is a waste of time," Stottler said. "We did our due diligence, and we move on."


Janesville Education Association President Dave Parr said the three unions offered a money-saving change to their health insurance in exchange for the school board approving a new employee handbook that would go into effect in July 2013.


The employee handbook outlines work rules and benefits.


July 2013 is when the unions' contracts run out and a new law takes effect. The law allows unions to bargain only over wages. The school board will be free to rewrite work rules and make changes in benefits. At a minimum, union members will be required to start paying about 5.9 percent of their salaries toward their pension plan.


Parr said the unions' offer was to start a point-of-service health plan that would have saved the district 7 to 12 percent on health insurance, a minimum of $1.4 million next year.


Parr said he got those figures from the district's health-insurance consultant, Boyd Consulting.


But in a letter to the unions, school board President Bill Sodemann wrote that consultant Bill Boyd called the claim of savings "very arbitrary" and that "to rush into a new plan now would be detrimental and possibly very costly to the membership."


Parr said a point-of-service plan would be cheaper. It would steer members to one health care provider. If they wanted to go to a different provider, they would have to pay a 20 percent co-pay.


Sodemann also questioned the idea of approving an employee handbook now, saying it would take much time to develop one, time that is not available.


The two sides met under the terms of Act 65, which allows bargaining to save the district money while preserving existing contracts, unless both sides agree to changes. Act 65 runs out Feb. 12, so approving a handbook and allowing time for all the union memberships to vote on the deal would be impossible, said school board member Peter D. Severson, who took part in the first meeting last week.


"It would not be prudent to agree to make commitments to rush through a new handbook in exchange for possible, unknown, one-year savings on an insurance plan," Sodemann wrote.


Parr noted that other districts around the state already are approving handbooks, and the vast majority of those are positive, from the unions' perspective, so he would expect that any handbook approved here would also be positive.


Parr said he understood that the district could change the handbook at any time.


"Our membership is very apprehensive about this," Parr said. "The only thing we want to know is what our future is going to hold. If it saves the district a ton of money, good gravy, I don't see the down side for the district."


But the unions appeared to want the handbook to reflect current contracts, Stottler said, and it would be unfair to approve a handbook now, only to make significant changes later.


For example, a future board is likely to consider reducing the early-retirement benefit, Stottler said. The benefit allows a worker to retire and trade unused sick days for health insurance that carries the retiree up to the date when Medicare begins. A future board could reduce the number of years of health coverage after retirement and save a lot of money, Stottler said.


It wouldn't be fair to mislead teachers with a handbook now and make changes later, Stottler said.


"If you are willing to discuss any other options, we would still wish to meet," Sodemann wrote in his letter, dated Tuesday. "If the unions do not wish to discuss any other options, then meeting on (Thursday) may not serve any purpose. Please let us know how you would like to proceed from here."


Stottler said that in exchange for a concession on pension payments, Sodemann gave the unions assurances last week, that as one of the most conservative board members, he would push to cover more of the district's budget gap with its fund balance, something the unions have called for.


Sodemann couldn't promise on behalf of a future board, but he said he would make it a priority, Stottler said. The unions met separately and returned to the table and said they were not interested in talking about pensions, Stottler said.


Severson said he thinks something positive can come of the recent exchanges: "I think there was some reaching across the table (last week) that hadn't happened in negotiations, at least that I've been involved in. I look forward to working with the represented groups, and we'll keep pushing forward to make this a better district."


"We are disappointed that the school district was not willing to look at saving money for the district," Parr said in a prepared statement, "but we will continue to work with them to do our best to maintain our high standards with the reduced resources that are made available for our students."



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