Act 10 effects worry districts, teachers

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Sunday, May 13, 2012
— Wisconsin’s new laws have a lot of public employees wondering what the future holds for them.

Perhaps no group is more concerned than teachers.

The teachers’ bosses are worried, as well.

The biggest problem is how to pay teachers more with limited revenue and rising costs, notably the cost of health insurance, said Dennis McCarthy, superintendent for the Beloit Turner School District.

“We do want to see our teachers make more because look at the significant financial hits they took to their take-home pay this past year,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy was referring to new state requirements that public employees pay part of their pension-fund contributions. Some districts, such as Turner, also are making employees pay more for health insurance.

Ted Lewis, who negotiates local teachers contracts as director of Rock Valley Education Professionals, said he figures that on average, teachers are losing about 10 percent of their take-home pay.

“I think any school district that wants to attract and retain great teachers would want to put in a salary system that makes sense and that gives fair compensation so teachers stay in the district,” Lewis said.

McCarthy said he’s most concerned for young teachers who haven’t had the time to reach higher pay levels of veteran teachers.

“It’s not a very appealing job to want to go into for some people, right now, because of those issues,” McCarthy said.

Lewis said the system already is giving young teachers second thoughts and is keeping young people from entering the profession. New rules for bargaining wage increases ensure that pay won’t keep up with inflation.

“You never get to a real professional wage,” Lewis said.

McCarthy said money problems mean schools could have a hard time recruiting teachers in tech ed, science, technology, computers and math because people with those aptitudes could make more in the private sector.

Ironically, it’s those skill sets that employers are saying they need, and which districts like Turner are trying to provide through programs such as the engineering-focused Project Lead the Way.

Some teachers are wondering whether they’ll even have jobs as districts deal with cuts in state aid.

“I would say they’re nervous, and one thing I have seen from the teachers group is the fear we are going to terminate highly paid teachers with lots of seniority,” said Janesville public schools Superintendent Karen Schulte.

But Schulte said she will not sacrifice her best teachers to save money, and the school board supports her.

“First of all, why would I do that when the (school) board has given me as my top goal the goal of increasing achievement? Why would I cut you?” Schulte said. “I need you.”

And consider how the district treats its employees who are not protected by union contracts, Schulte said. Those employees are not dismissed to save money.

“If you’re a high-performing or a middle, solid-performing teacher, I wouldn’t worry about a reduction in pay,” Schulte said. “If you are not, if you are a low-performing employee, then yes, of course, you should upgrade your skills. That is true in any job.”

Janesville School Board President Bill Sodemann agreed with Schulte, adding he wants Janesville to be competitive in the labor market but also be fair to taxpayers.

Sodemann would like to change teacher benefits and work rules to save money and retain the best teachers without the constraints of a union contract that locks in certain benefits or requires layoffs based on seniority.

Wisconsin Act 10 does away with the way teachers have been paid for decades. Teachers no longer will see a salary schedule that rewards them for years of service and for increasing the number of post-bachelor’s college credits they earn.

Sodemann said he’d like to put money aside for bonuses to reward performance, although he’s not ready for a merit-pay system, yet.

Attracting teachers in hard-to-fill positions, such as those in science and math, might be more difficult in the future, so the district might have to hire those teachers at a higher pay level to compete in the market, Sodemann said.

Now, entry-level teachers all begin at the same pay level. College grads who start teaching in Janesville next fall will earn $35,370.

Janesville teachers are protected from all the changes until July 1, 2013, when their contract runs out. Schulte said she’s been gathering input from staff focus groups and will hold public meetings in the months ahead before recommending changes in benefits and working conditions to the school board.

Lewis said he hears the concerns from teachers, “and I tell them the best way to avoid the consequences of this rule and other anti-education, anti-teacher measures, is to recall the governor so these rules can be changed.”

Last updated: 8:36 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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