Janesville School Board member: Teachers, district, taxpayers should share pain

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Saturday, February 26, 2011
— The Janesville School Board decided Friday to invite district unions to help them balance the district budget, but it’s not known if the unions will agree.

The board will invite two unions—one representing teachers and one representing custodians and maintenance and food service workers—to reopen their contracts and make concessions before the state budget repair bill becomes law.

Janesville Education Association President Dave Parr said reopening the contract is problematic because it’s not clear whether the union would be protected from the state budget-repair bill.

If the union does nothing, it appears that the contract would protect its members from the bill until the contract runs out in 2013. The bill would require teachers to pay more for their benefits and would remove their rights to bargain for anything except wages.

Parr said after the board meeting that he needs to consult with an attorney for the state teachers union on Monday to make sure that reopening the contract would keep teachers safe. He then will ask teachers in an all-member meeting Tuesday whether they are willing to go ahead.

One problem is that union bylaws require two written notices of an impending vote to ratify a contract and that normally takes two weeks, Parr said. The modified contract would have to be approved before the budget repair bill goes into effect, however. It’s unclear when the Legislature might finalize the bill.

If the contract is still being negotiated when the bill becomes law, all provisions of the contract would be nullified, and the bill will take effect, attorney Mike Julka told the board.

The school board will give the unions only until Thursday to come to the bargaining table. And if the bill becomes law before that, there would be no possibility of negotiations.

The district is looking at a $10 million budget shortfall for 2011-2012 and the probability that Gov. Scott Walker would add to that problem with a $5 million cut in state aid. The school board wants financial concessions that would help fill the budget hole and avoid as many layoffs as possible, board President Bill Sodemann said.

Parr said there’s not enough information to decide whether teachers should negotiate.

“The membership has to feel comfortable. The school board has to feel comfortable. And it has to be legal,” Parr said. “It’s too bad that it’s such a short timeframe.”

The board met for 22 hours in closed session to discuss this and one other issue.

The board decided not to do what a lot of other boards have done in recent days: issue preliminary notices of non-renewal to teachers.

The Wisconsin Association of School Boards advised its members this week to issue the notices to protect the school district from being sued by teachers who might be laid off this spring. Many school districts around the state decided to issues the notices. Others did not.

Laid-off teachers who sued successfully could have required the district to pay them even while they were laid off, Parr said.

That would cause the district grave financial harm, Sodemann said.

The board, after conferring with Julka, decided that while the danger of such lawsuits may exist for other districts, the fact that the Janesville teachers contract lasts through June 2013 protects the district.

In addition, Parr and Julka signed a letter stating that teachers’ rights to be rehired if openings exist after a layoff this spring would last only through June 10, 2013. That protects the district, Sodemann said.

“It’s a great decision. It’s the right thing to do,” Parr said afterward. “For me it’s black and white: our contract takes precedence over state law.”

In a related matter, one board member e-mailed district teachers on Thursday and urged them to ask their union to re-open their contract.

Lori Stottler suggested a share-the-pain deal:

-- District employees would pay half their pension contributions and 8 percent of their health-insurance premiums.

The pension contribution is in line with the budget repair bill, but Walker is calling on state workers to pay 12.6 percent of their premiums.

-- The school board would agree to take $4.45 million out of district reserves to cover expenses in next year’s budget. The board would have to change its policy for using reserve money in order to take more than $1.1 million from the fund.

-- Taxpayers would see an 8.8 percent tax increase next year. That’s less than the estimated $12.8 percent increase allowed by law but more than some board members have said they could agree to.

Stottler said several school board members have told her they would look favorably on such a deal.

Last updated: 4:12 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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