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Janesville School Board field split on negotiations

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Frank Schultz
March 19, 2013

— Janesville School Board candidates were evenly divided Monday on the question of whether the board should negotiate contracts with its employee unions.

The question was posed to the six candidates during a Janesville Noon Rotary forum held at Rotary Botanical Gardens, 1455 Palmer Drive.

Cathy Myers, Karl Dommershausen and Fredrick Jackson leaned in favor of negotiating contracts that spell out wages, benefits and working conditions. Diane Eyers, Kristin Hesselbacher and Peter D. Severson appeared to be opposed to returning to traditional contract negotiations.

A majority of the existing school board has rejected calls from the unions to negotiate. The incumbents in the April 2 elections—Dommershausen, Hesselbacher and Severson—hinted Tuesday that something is in the works to break that logjam.

A key to the dispute is the status of a 2011 law known as Act 10. The law allows negotiations only on the question of wages, but opinions differ on whether Act 10 is in force or largely null and void.

A Dane County judge has ruled much of the law unconstitutional. An appeals court recently declined to put that ruling on hold while the appeals process continues.

Unions contend the Dane County ruling means Act 10 is dead, at least for now, and that negotiations on benefits, wages and working conditions can commence. The district's legal advisers have disagreed.

Here are the candidates' responses in the order they answered:

-- Severson said the board should negotiate on wages and health insurance, as he believes is legal, but everything does not need to be negotiated.

The district has given employees opportunity to have their say through email and other methods, Severson said.

However, "I don't think the teachers have been able to really see us (board members) listen to them. They really haven't been able—as they've been giving us input—to see how we respond to that and where we're at with some of that, so that's really one of the things that I really look forward (to) the next three weeks or so," he said.

-- Myers, a teacher in an Illinois school district, said the board should negotiate.

"I'm a big believer in collective bargaining. I have served on bargaining teams before," Myers said.

"Negotiations and talks between teachers and school boards … can be kind of contentious and rough, but at the end of the day, you work out a plan everybody agrees to, and you move on, and we do what's best for the kids," she said.

-- Jackson said discussing policies, procedures, wages and benefits without including the groups that are affected can lead to dysfunction.

"I don't think you can clearly understand or define what the job should be or how it is without including that party that it's actually affecting," he said.

-- Eyers said unions should not have a say, but that teachers should.

"I believe our teachers have great minds and have the ability to come up with great ideas and suggestions, so I fully feel that our teachers do need to voice their opinions, and I believe our board has done a good job in trying to get the voice out from the teachers, but I do believe there are a lot of communicational problems in our district, and there's a need to kind of wash the air a little bit and be as a board, probably, to get a little more translucent," she said.

The board also needs to show teachers that the board is there for them, she said.

-- Dommershausen said unions exist, and the board should negotiate with them.

"Email is fine, but I think we have to sit down and look at people in the eye. I think they need to look us in the eye. I think we need to have those discussions. I think they should have started a long time ago," he said.

-- Hesselbacher said her goal is to have a package of wages, benefits and working conditions acceptable to all parties.

"I don't think we need to negotiate that, necessarily. I think it can be done through discussions," she said.

"One of the things that has been most frustrating, not just for me but for everybody on the board, is that we don't know what we can negotiate about, still. It's still very murky.

"I'm very hopeful that in the next few weeks, we'll move forward and have good discussions with our unions, including the teachers, about (benefits) so they can make good decisions in a timely manner," Hesselbacher said.

It wasn't clear how things might change in coming weeks, but the board has a closed-door meeting scheduled Tuesday night at which the topic will be discussed.

"We'll know a lot more after tomorrow (Tuesday) night, what we can and can't do," Dommershausen said.



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