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Teachers' Pay Becomes Vexing Issue with Tax Freeze, State Cuts

Tosa Schools officials for the first time talk openly about reducing courses, enlarging classes and worries about hiring and retaining good teachers.

As June came to an end, the Wauwatosa School District, with a lot of relief and a touch of triumph, succeeded in overcoming the most difficult time it had faced in memory – balancing its budget against a $6.5 milliion shortfall brought on by the budget battle in Madison.

Success didn't come easy or without great sacrifice: A one- to two-year pay freeze and higher pension and health insurance payments for every employee of the district was the price of keeping nearly everyone employed and protecting student learning from being compromised.

Now, with almost no pause for breath, the district is taking up the next challenge: Dealing with flat revenues for the foreseeable future in a world where the pay structure for teachers might as well have been blown to pieces by the dismantling of collective bargaining.

It promises to be the new most difficult time the district will face in its history – and this time there is no end in sight.

Top administrators and members of the School Board met Monday night in a special meeting of the board's Compensation Committee to begin a series of hearings on teacher compensation and how it will look in the future with frozen tax levies and reduced state aid.

Under almost every scenario, it looks bleak, at least for many.

"They (the state) want us to restructure and base it on incentive, but there's no money to pay for it," said John Mack, director of business services. "We do not control our own revenue. The only way I see anybody getting a raise is if somebody else takes a loss.

"I personally do not see how this can be implemented."

Monday's meeting was the first of four that will decide whether the district can or should try to stay with the "single-salary" pay plan that has been in place, or to move to an alternative pay structure – which would almost certainly be a "performance pay" plan intended to reward good teachers and force poor ones out of the district and perhaps out of the profession.

That is exactly what is championed by many who believe that teachers' unions had handcuffed school districts and taxpayers with ironclad contracts that kept them employed and getting annual raises even if they were mediocre or worse in the classroom.

But Dan Chanen, director of human resources, said that the truth has always been that school districts excercised more control over salary scales, while unions focused on benefits and work conditions. The single-salary structure – beginning with the base pay for a first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree, then advancing them through a series of steps (years of service) and lanes (incentives for professional development) – was designed to benefit school districts by retaining good teachers.

"Collective bargaining evolved under state law," Chanen said. "The single-salary system would reward good teachers. They know where they're going and how much they're going to make.

"Most teachers don't want to give up their place on the pay scale to move to another district."

While performance pay, or merit pay as it used to be called, has it's attractions, it also has its pitfalls.

Committee chairman Mike Meier tossed out the first baseball analogy, but it wouldn't be the last.

"I'm worried about what could become a free-agent market," Meier said. "We don't have the money (for good teachers across the board) because we've spent it somewhere else.

"Maybe we'll need to look at this every year and see what the market did."

That free-market, baseball club scenario had Mack worried as well. The equity that is supposed to be designed into the public education system is not a fact, after all. Some very affluent districts already have much higher tax levies and less reliance on falling state aid, and they could become the leaders in a buyer's market.

"We're like the Brewers, and there's going to be New York Yankees out there," Mack said. "CC Sabathia loved Milwaukee, but we couldn't match their compensation."

In another scenario, Mack said, other districts could try to compete in a free market for top teachers with short-term borrowing against their reserves, "possibly leading to bankruptcy" – that, presumably, might be personified by the Cubs.

"You can't levy more, but you can spend more," Mack said.

In the end of the discussion, things went where Superintendent Phil Ertl and the School Board had never let them go earlier this spring when fighting the good fight to keep schools in 2011-2012 exactly as they were in 2010-2011.

"What we have right now won't work next year," Ertl said. "Ultimately, it comes down to what do we pay for and how do we pay for it."

"If we want to have excellent teachers, maybe we have to have fewer teachers," said board member Phil Kroner.

There was talk of fewer class offerings. There was talk of significantly larger class sizes. In June, any mention of such things was slapped down in style.

Come July, no one batted an eye.

Conservative Digest July 12, 2011 at 12:38 PM
It is a hard cruel world and our leaders in Washington just cannot fiugre how bad that they have screwed things up.
Michele Braze July 12, 2011 at 01:32 PM
"If we want to have excellent teachers, maybe we have to have fewer teachers," said board member Phil Kroner. You can have the best teacher in the world (based on test scores I guess) but fewer teachers means bigger class sizes and that means lower performance, lower test scores and ultimately burned-out teachers. When are we going to recognize that you get what you pay for? Why do you think that more affluent disctricts are willing to pay more taxes to have better schools? Duh
Christine McLaughlin July 12, 2011 at 01:41 PM
And one kid's best teacher is another kid's nightmare. I wonder if people realize that teachers in some charter schools must use Badgercare for health insurance. Do we want to drive all teachers into such a program, and if we do where's the net gain for taxpayers?
Betty July 12, 2011 at 01:55 PM
More money does not aways equal a better education - see MPS. If Mr. Mack can't figure this out or is so negative that he has already thrown in the towel, he should either resign or Dr. Ertl should fire him and hire someone with experience working in the private sector where businesses make these types of decisions every day. The real problem is and continues to be the anti-student, anti-tax payer contracts we stuck ourselves with for the next two years. If we had teachers pay 10% of their own pensions and 25% of their own insurance premiums and made them work an 8 hour day, a 40 hour week and got rid of seniorty and all of the other silly union work rules, we might have found a surplus like some the of the school districts that did not foolishly rush to renew contracts. Management and the School Board contributed to this "mess" by trying to kick the can down the road and take care of their friends in the union. The job now is to find a way to deal with the financial reality that does not negatively impact the students. So stop whinning and get to work. I know, let's go back and ask the union for additional concessions, surely they'll give in, after all its for the kids, right?
sarah orkowski July 12, 2011 at 02:31 PM
This comment is for Pudge... you wish you were a teacher.
Jesse July 12, 2011 at 03:37 PM
Someone idolizes talk radio
teacher July 12, 2011 at 03:38 PM
Dear Pudge, Teachers work more than an eight-hour day. We work at home, pay for our own courses, (unlike businesses that send their employees to get their MBAs) and frequently pay for the supplies that our students' families could not afford. Think you live in a district where every child arrives prepared to learn? Think again. If your child is in a public school in Milwaukee county, your child has students sitting near him that are lacking school supplies and quite often even breakfast. Do not let your denial continue to blind you. Teachers in Milwaukee County are responsible for their students' test scores, emotional disabilities, and exceptional education needs. This merely scrapes the top of their job-related responsiblities. We not only teach reading, writing, and math, we teach social skills and ethics. Let's see you find ethics taught in the private business sector. We give the taxpayers what they want for their children so that they are prepared to work in our democracy. It is not as simple as going to work from 8:00 to 4:00; it is a vocation. Teachers who are not fit don't last; they end up in the private sector by their own choice. The financial reality of our recession is not the fault of the teachers or the unions; the private sector businesses did it all on their own. And, Pudge, WHINING only has 2 N's in it.
CowDung July 12, 2011 at 04:31 PM
The financial realities are that teachers contribute far less to their health insurance and pensions than those of us in the private sector. The levels at which public employees are being required to contribute are still far less than what those of us pay in the private sector. Certainly, the recession isn't the fault of teachers, but I would argue that it isn't the fault of those of us working in the private sector either. When the unions are filing lawsuits to keep free Viagra benefits for their members while districts are facing budget shortfalls, there's a problem. Why should teachers be immune from the financial sacrifices that the rest of us have to endure?
Betty July 12, 2011 at 04:46 PM
Dear Teacher, I never said that teaching wasn't a hard job, at times I'm sure, like all jobs, it is. My comments were directed at an administrator and an administration that seems lost in the face of a new challenge. But since you opened the can of worms...please, there are much harder jobs, with significantly less job security, paying far less money (on an hours worked per year basis) and w/o solid gold heath care and retirement plans. I could give you chapter and verse on working in the private sector, but I don't suppose you would care about that any more than I do about how hard you find your teaching job to be. By the way, very few, if any employers pay for advanced degrees today, in fact most don't even pay for continuing education or licensing fees any longer. In exchange for a two year commitment, a former employer of mine did pay about 60% of the cost of my MBA, which I earned while working 50+ hours a week for them. BTW, I didn't get to write off my portion of the cost on my taxes like teachers do and if I had gotten less than a B; I would have had to reimburse them for the entire cost. Finally, Teacher, thanks for the spelling tip. Oh and Sarah, had I wanted to be a teacher, I would have been one, but I didn't, so I'm not. Jesse, I can only imagine that you do not like talk radio because it provides information to listeners that the main stream media won't report due to its liberal bias. You most likely find that info inconvenient to your beliefs.
Christine McLaughlin July 12, 2011 at 06:40 PM
Dung said, "The financial realities are that teachers contribute far less to their health insurance and pensions than those of us in the private sector. The levels at which public employees are being required to contribute are still far less than what those of us pay in the private sector." My question is so what? Doesn't every job have its own set of trade-offs and benefits? It's also a mistake to compare teacher with "the private sector." Teaching is very narrow in terms of variation in wage and benefits. But the private sector. . . whooo boy! That ranges from almost nothing to almost everything. Don't golden parachutes bother you too?
CowDung July 12, 2011 at 06:55 PM
I thought it could safely be assumed that we were talking about full time employees in the private sector. The contributions to health insurance and pensions (actually 401(k) plans, since almost nobody in the private sector gets a pension anymore), are pretty comparable across the various jobs in the private sector. Paying 20-30% of our health insurance cost and getting up to 3% matching of our 401(k) contribution are pretty standard (97% employee paid). How does that compare with teachers paying 12.5% of their health insurance and 50% of their pension cost?
Conservative Digest July 12, 2011 at 07:22 PM
My wife and many friends have been teachers. Best job in the world. After you get your lesson plans and everything set you can pretty much do the same every year. Why should teachers only have to work 180 days minus most of the sick days that thye take, minus the convention days, minus all of the holidays, minus the summer vactaions and other vacations and have better pensios, laries, health and dental then the rest of us? all of us professionals work off the clock to keep up, big deal that is our job. conmpare the jobs of nurses with the same eduction; lower pay, louys hours, a really toiugh job in many palces, 2 weeks vacation, few sick days no summer off, christamas, work holidays. I will never cry for the education lobby. As for Christine McLaughlin, she helped Wauwatosa get rid of a state senator that helped us get 9 million for the schools and keep several schools open. Walker has helped us balance our budgets and put an end to this education lobby's baloney about how hard they work and how they suffer.
jbw July 13, 2011 at 02:21 AM
I remember my days in SE Wisconsin's public schools well. Most of the teachers drove luxury cars and owned large houses out of town. It wasn't until I was 13 that I understood that was because they made a lot more money than my family. Though they were highly compensated, much of the lessons were sadly out of date and I had to struggle to find the knowledge I needed to earn a decent scholarship. I learned more in my first year in college than all my years in public school particularly since it gave me opportunities to learn what I could use. I must admit to being a little jealous of the academic world. I followed my passion in technology and consulting, but it meant working 80-120 hour weeks for years without vacation and paying 100% of my own benefits just for $50-60K a year until I burned out. Teaching a calculus class while taking grad school before that was a piece of cake by comparison. I hope they can work out a reasonable compromise and keep the schools here in good condition. How about giving the people of this city hard numbers and presenting some alternatives and allowing us to decide what we want? There's obviously more than one way things can be restructured, and we can still put various measures up for a vote if there is popular support, so they have a lot of room to work.
Conservative Digest July 13, 2011 at 02:33 AM
I had some incredible teachers in grade school. We were a bunch of lower class and lower middle class kids taught by teachers making pennies a year. Everyone learned to read, we had over 40 kids in some classes, several were split between two grades with the teacher teaching 6th and 7th grade at the same time. No hot lunches, only a few kids could afford colored pencils, the rich ones. The rest of us had 6 crayolas. No one cried that we were underprivileged. Many went on to college, almost all graduated from high school. The teachers wore habits.
Christine McLaughlin July 13, 2011 at 02:08 PM
Thanks, Conservative, for giving me credit for helping rid us of Tom Reynolds. I do wish I deserved that credit. Meanwhile, I think I will buy you a whole box of 48 Crayolas, since having shared 6 among nearly 40 students seems to have, well, sort of affected you in an adverse way.

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