Janesville44.4°

Retire now, teachers union advises

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Frank Schultz
January 10, 2013

— Janesville teachers who are able to retire should do so or risk losing benefits when their contract expires July 1, the president of the teachers union said Wednesday.

Dave Parr was commenting in the wake of the Janesville School Board's latest rejection of a union offer of contract negotiations.

The board met behind closed doors Tuesday and voted 6-2 to reject the offer, said board President Bill Sodemann.

Voting in the minority were Karl Dommershausen and Kevin Murray. Scott Feldt was absent.

The district's three employee unions likely will lose their contracts July 1. The administration and board have been working on a "handbook" to replace the contracts. The handbook would define benefits and work rules. Negotiations could have pre-empted the handbook process.

Union employees will begin paying more for their pension plans July 1, and the board has signaled its intention to require employees to pay more for health insurance, saving the district millions of dollars.

The teachers union also had a proposal that Parr said would save millions.

The board also is looking at the teachers' early-retirement benefit, which gives health insurance to retired teachers who qualify, bridging the gap between their retirement date and Medicare.

The board sent a letter to union leaders Wednesday, saying the board rejects negotiations but is willing to listen to employees' input on handbook issues.

"They didn't say they'll work with us. There's a clear difference between work and listen," said Parr, president of the teachers union.

Parr said the administration should make employees a part of the process.

"I would think you would want your staff to buy into this," Parr said.

Parr said the administration and board instead are being secretive about parts of the handbook.

"It just leads to more people asking more questions," Parr said. "What is so important and so secretive that you don't want anybody to know? We're all here to help. We all have the singular goal of doing what's best for the students of Janesville."

Parr said that in the absence of information about future benefits, teachers who are able to retire should do so.

The school board on Tuesday accepted retirement notices from 17 veteran teachers.

Parr said he has heard from many who would prefer to continue teaching, but they are retiring because they fear they'll lose benefits when the contract expires.

"It's clear that if you want the benefits of this contract, you have to go now," Parr said.

Steve Sperry, the director of human resources, said he understands the uncertainty, but the administration is trying to do what is best for employees.

Sperry said he could not tell anyone whether retirement is the best option, that it's up to the individual.

"I can tell you no one's trying to be secretive, but also for anyone trying to put something out in public that could have something to do with negotiations later on, that's not going to happen," Sperry said.

The board is in a difficult situation. It has agreed with its legal counsel, which has said the board should not make any decisions on employee compensation until challenges to Wisconsin Act 10 are resolved in the courts.

Act 10 takes away the unions' ability to negotiate for anything except wages. Circuit court judges have struck down parts of the law, but the state is appealing those rulings.

The unions have maintained that the circuit court rulings allow resumption of contract negotiations.

Sodemann said he suspects, based on talk he has heard, that the board will curtail early-retirement benefits but maintain the current benefit for teachers near retirement.

"We're not trying to force people away, but there probably will be some changes to it," Sodemann said.



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