Janesville23.2°

Knilans says he wants to save teachers’ jobs; Parr says he’s skeptical of plan

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
May 13, 2011
— A local legislator said he hopes to save Janesville teachers’ jobs with a change to the state budget bill.

The president of the teachers union expressed skepticism that Rep. Joe Knilans’ proposal would work.


Knilans, R-Janesville, questions whether the union is stonewalling.


Knilans said the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee will consider his idea for inclusion in the 2011-13 biennial budget bill, and he has heard positive comments about it.


Knilans hopes the provision will solve an impasse between the Janesville School Board and the teachers union, the Janesville Education Association, resulting in the loss of fewer teachers’ jobs next fall.


A review of recent history is necessary to understand Knilans’ idea:


The school board and JEA approved a new teachers contract last fall, months before Gov. Scott Walker introduced his budget repair bill.


Walker’s bill would wipe out most collective bargaining powers now enjoyed by public-employee unions. The unions could negotiate for wages only, but even those negotiations would be limited by the rate of inflation.


The bill also would allow all governmental bodies to require all employees to pay 5.8 percent of their salaries to their pension fund and 12.6 percent of their health-insurance costs.


The Legislature passed Walker’s bill under controversial circumstances, but it’s not yet a law because of a court challenge. If it becomes law, it would not take effect until a union’s contract runs out. The Janesville teachers’ contract runs through June 2013.


Statewide, many unions agreed to at least some of the reductions in their members’ incomes.


Walker also is proposing cuts in aid to local governments, which is part of the Janesville schools’ budget problem. Walker says the savings in employee benefits would make up for the loss of aid, but that hasn’t worked in Janesville because the teachers contract protects them for the next two years, and the union has declined to reopen the contract.


With few other options, the school board has cut at least 120 teaching and non-teaching positions in the coming school year.


The school board has asked the JEA to reopen its contract twice, the last time asking only for a concession on pensions, not health insurance.


The JEA said no both times.


JEA President Dave Parr said union attorneys advised him not to reopen the contract because doing so could automatically make the contract subject to the budget repair bill, wiping out most of the teachers’ rights and benefits.


Superintendent Karen Schulte estimates the district would gain about $3.5 million if the teachers and two smaller unions all paid only their pension contributions.


Knilans’ proposal would allow the union to reopen its contract only to bargain the pension and health-insurance concessions and would keep the contract intact until it expires.


The provision would apply to any public-employee union whose contract was in place before Walker introduced the bill, but Knilans is especially hopeful that it could help the Janesville School Board to rescind some of its job cuts.


“This is a good way we can save some jobs,” Knilans said. “We don’t need any more layoffs in Janesville. If we can save a large percentage of those jobs, I’m here to work for that.”


Knilans said he has heard from many teachers who would be willing to pay the 5.8 percent but don’t want to lose their collective bargaining rights.


Parr said he has been hearing this idea since February, but without specifics it would not be prudent to comment on what the union would do.


“We won’t say, ‘No,’ to anything, but we’re not going to say, ‘Yes,’ to anything when we don’t know (the precise language),” Parr said.


Parr also said Knilans provision is based on an “if”—If the budget repair bill becomes a law. The Legislature can’t make a conditional law, Parr said, so Knilans’ idea is dead on arrival.


Knilans said his legal advice is that it’s perfectly legal.


Knilans also questioned Parr’s reasoning: If the budget repair bill is not yet a law, then why doesn’t the union open the contract now, he asked.


Knilans said he could be wrong, but it sounds as though Parr is trying to avoid a vote of the members on whether they want to reopen their contract.


“All I’m trying to do is help them out,” Knilans said. “The school board and Karen Schulte asked if there was any help they could get, and I said, ‘Well, we will try to do that,’ and it’s getting push-back, which I don’t understand.”


Asked if he is interested in saving teachers’ jobs, Parr said he doesn’t know whether the school board would rescind its decision or what the district administration would propose if it got more money.


“Until I see something from them, it’s tough for me to comment,” Parr said.


Knilans said GOP leadership is open to his proposal.


“Whether I can convince everybody to go along, I’m not sure,” Knilans said, and of course, the idea may be modified before it is approved.


Parr said it’s that uncertainty that gives him pause.


Fundraiser continues; public meetings set

The Save Janesville Schools fundraiser has collected 158 contributions amounting to $45,000, a spokesman said Thursday.


In addition, Janesville School District employees have pledged to have $57,600 deducted from their paychecks in the coming school year, Mike Rundle said.


Save Janesville Schools describes itself as “a grassroots organization of community members seeking to raise $6 million to offset the school district’s budget shortfall for 2011-2013.”


The school board has eliminated close to 10 percent of the district’s workforce, raised fees and cut other spending in order to balance the budget.


The organization plans two informational meetings about their efforts:


-- 3 p.m. Sunday, May 22, at the Hedberg Public Library Public Meeting Room, 316 S. Main St., Janesville.


-- 7 p.m. Monday, May 23, in the small auditorium, Room 1145, at Parker High School, 3125 Mineral Point Ave., Janesville.


Rundle said a brochure was mailed to more than 450 local businesses this week, a second pledge day for district employees is being arranged, and Save Janesville Schools is working to set up a website.


To donate to Save Janesville Schools: Send checks directly to Community Foundation of Southern Wisconsin, 26 S. Jackson St., Janesville, WI 53548. Or donations can be made online at cfsw.org/savejanesvilleschools.asp.


For more information, contact Save Janesville Schools by email at SaveJanesvilleSchools@gmail.com or contact them on their Facebook page, or contact the Community Foundation of Southern Wisconsin, (608) 758-0883.
Forward Janesville offers help to schools

Janesville’s biggest business association is hoping to help the Janesville School District with its budget predicament and wants to clear the air on the question of possible concessions from the teachers union.


Forward Janesville officials have met with school district officials on more than one occasion to discuss the district’s budget difficulties. Another meeting is set for Friday, May 20, and the teachers union will join the discussion.


Forward Janesville President John Beckord said the question of whether the union could safely open its contract to help the district financially is one he hears often, and it’s possible the district and union have not fully communicated on the issue.


Forward Janesville is interested in exploring whether a compromise is possible, Beckord said.


“There doesn’t seem to be any consensus on the facts as it relates to that particular question. That is one thread that causes frustration in certain circles when this topic is discussed,” Beckord said.


Forward Janesville leaders also are interested in offering its members’ assistance to the district and want to explore possible solutions that may not yet have been explored, Beckord said.


Forward Janesville could help the district compare what it pays for various services to what large businesses in the community pay, for example, Beckord said.


A blue-ribbon committee to consider the district’s finances is another possibility, Beckord said.


Forward Janesville wants to consider how much long-term financial planning the district has done, Beckord said, and whether it has considered the benefits of changes in personnel practices, cash management or alternative benefits plans.


Beckord said local businesses want a top-shelf school district because of the implications for economic development. And as major payers of property taxes, businesses want to know that the district is being run efficiently as possible.


Beckord said his members are concerned about the job cuts the school board has approved.


“No matter where you stand politically, you can’t help but be concerned for what that’s going to mean for the performance of the system,” Beckord said.



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