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.