Milton school staff morale at ‘all-time low’ over plan, teachers say

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Neil Johnson
Friday, May 17, 2013

— While grappling with the transition to a new superintendent, an explosion in class sizes and a potential budget gap, the Milton School Board now has another problem—employee morale.

Teachers this week said morale in the classroom is at an “all-time low” as school staff stare down the barrel of another round of potential cuts in take-home pay the board is considering through a series of insurance changes.

In trying to offset an estimated 8.2 percent climb in insurance costs, the board is considering quadrupling the amount district employees pay out-of-pocket for emergency room visits and doubling the cost of prescription drug co-pays.

Those aren’t the only proposed changes. Others include a new $20 per visit doctor’s office co-pay and a continued 12.8 percent pay-in for insurance premiums for employees.

Those potential changes were relayed to The Gazette by Michael Dorn, president of the Milton Education Association, the district’s teachers union.

Newly appointed board President Betsy Lubke did not refute the accuracy of those estimates. She said they were part of “insurance company quotes” the district shared with the teachers union.

The district has not provided The Gazette with copies of the insurance quotes.

The teachers union says the changes could spark a lightning round of teacher retirements this spring and chase away young teachers whose take-home pay already has been cropped by two years of district cuts ushered in by Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10.

For its part, the board said, it hasn’t solidified any insurance plans, and it won’t until Monday at the earliest, when it approves the district’s handbook—a set of rules that work as a district employee manual and guide for working conditions.

At a board meeting this week, Milton High School teacher Lisa Olson told the board most of her colleagues enjoy their work—most not for the pay but for the chance to serve young people.

Pay cuts year after year have caused cynicism to creep in, she said.

“I have yet to figure out how to live on good vibes and a warm heart,” Olson said.

Olson was one of about 100 teachers who attended the school board meeting Monday, and one of about a dozen who addressed the board. Each gave the board an earful about problems with the district’s brand of fiscal management.

Teachers union President Mike Dorn said the board’s budgets the last few years have “used staff as a source of revenue for the district.”

The board is struggling with short- and long-term strategies to increase staff in some elementary and middle schools where class sizes have risen to 28 or 29 students, according to district officials.

Dorn told the board in a written statement this week that the union sees the board’s proposed benefits changes as a way to funnel money toward more teachers in those crowded schools.

“Cutting employee benefits to fund new teaching positions is basically cannibalistic,” Dorn wrote. “The schools are bleeding to death, and the board is attempting a transfusion, but doing so from the right arm to the left arm and telling the patient that everything will be OK.

“Why? Because getting the life-saving blood from someone else might hurt,” Dorn wrote.

At the same time, the board this week approved a $15,000 plan to start a boys hockey team, and it gave preliminary approval to maintaining staffing intended to help schools hardest hit by class size increases.

Meanwhile, the board is working through a projected budget deficit that has ranged in estimates this winter and spring from $800,000 to $60,000, according to Business Services Director Mary Ellen Van Valin.

The board won’t know truly what financial shape it’s in until state funding and per-pupil state aid figures are released later this year.

The district is assuming the state will not increase funding per pupil, and as a result the district approved a set of staff cuts earlier this year.

The district has a history in the last four years of releasing budget estimates early in the year that overstate potential deficits by $300,000 to $500,000, district officials have acknowledged.

Dorn this week called that a history of “crying wolf” and then finding a year-end budget surplus that is then socked into district reserves.

Dorn attacked the board for working on an employee insurance benefits proposal and a good portion of the district handbook without representatives of the teachers union being present for input.

The board is able to work on such matters behind closed doors without negotiating with the union through provisions of Act 10, which curtailed teachers unions’ ability to collectively bargain on most issues.

Teacher Greg Devine used a cow-milking adage as a plea for more cohesive contract talks between the board and the teachers union.

“Let’s rub the side of the hide a little bit,” Devine told the board this week. “Let’s get back together.”

Last updated: 10:35 am Tuesday, July 2, 2013

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