Teacher numbers decline
Janesville is mentioned prominently as political forces renew their fight over Republican-engineered changes affecting schools and public employees.
The number of teachers and other staff working in Wisconsin schools dropped 2.3 percent this school year, the state Department of Public Instruction said Wednesday.
The new data comes in the middle of an ongoing political fight between Gov. Scott Walker, the state teachers’ union and others over the effects of cuts Walker made to public school funding last year and changes to collective bargaining rights that he says helped districts make up for the losses in aid.
State Superintendent Tony Evers said in a statement that there must be a bipartisan investment in public education because losses in school staff erode the public education system.
Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie told the Wisconsin State Journal that districts could have saved money by having teachers take on an additional class period each day.
Werwie noted that 43 percent of the staff cuts came in Milwaukee, Janesville and Kenosha, which account for 13 percent of the state’s student population.
Those three districts didn’t negotiate employee pension and health insurance contributions that most districts around the state used to prevent deeper staff cuts.
Those three districts had union contracts in place before the new law went into effect, sheltering teachers and other union workers from the legislation.
The statewide conflict reopened wounds from last year’s budget fight in Janesville.
The Janesville School Board cut 110 positions—teachers, administrators, custodians, social workers and others—to help fix a $10 million budget deficit, but school officials disagreed Wednesday with the teachers union president over what might have happened if the teachers had agreed to concessions.
The school board repeatedly asked the teachers and support-staff unions to agree to changes in their benefits to help close the budget gap.
The unions declined.
Teachers union President Dave Parr said giving in would have made little difference.
“Yes, it would’ve helped, but it would not have cured the problem,” Parr said.
Teacher concessions would have produced only $3 million savings versus a $10 million budget gap, Parr said.
“Walker’s budgeting has really harmed Janesville, as it has harmed every school district in the state,” Parr said. “It has really devastated Janesville, but a lot of these (budget) problems existed before Walker came along, and he just exacerbated it.”
Parr said losses of classroom teachers had more to do with enrollment dropping than with the budget.
Superintendent Karen Schulte said the $3 million in potential savings was only from employee pension contributions. An increase in health insurance premiums—from the current 3 percent for most employees to 12.9 percent—would have brought in another $2 million and gone a long way toward filling the budget hole, Schulte said.
School Board President Bill Sodemann agreed with Parr that the district’s budget situation was in bad shape before Walker proposed to cut state school aid. Sodemann said he warned in fall 2010 when the two sides agreed on the contract that the costs would lead to layoffs.
“And we were warning him that if you continue to tax (less than the maximum allowed over several years) that the district would have severe financial consequences,” Parr responded.
Most districts froze or held teacher pay raises to 1 percent this year while Janesville teachers had negotiated a 1.5 percent raise this year and 2 percent in 2012-13, Sodemann said, adding to district financial woes. Those pay increases are in addition to the scheduled raises for longevity and educational advancement, which vary by teacher.
Parr charged that the district issued inflated projections of budget deficits last year and this year, not taking into account financial resources and making the problem look worse than it is.
Schulte said even when the contracts run out and unions lose their protections in July 2013, the savings on pensions and a 12.9 percent premium contribution wouldn’t solve the district’s financial woes.
That’s assuming the recall elections don’t tip the political balance in Madison far enough to roll back the law and increase school funding. Whether Walker did the right thing to balance the state budget or not is a key issue in the recalls.
“DPI’s data is further proof that Governor Walker’s reforms are working,” Werwie said.
The state teachers union shot back in a statement: “The governor’s budget and policies show he does not value Wisconsin’s public schools and is focused more on dividing communities than strengthening them. We need a leader who puts education first.”
Wisconsin schools cut more than 2,300 positions, which was the steepest decline in the nine years that DPI has been consistently reporting staffing levels. Between the previous two school years, overall staffing dropped 1.5 percent.
Nearly three out of four districts reported staff reductions heading into the current school year. More than half of the districts with increasing staff also had increasing student enrollment.
Teaching positions made up more than 60 percent of the cuts.
The statewide student-teacher ratio increased from 14.33 to 14.66, the highest level in nine years.