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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Saturday, August 07, 2010

What's outrageous?

by folkbum

Since I started teaching for the Milwaukee Public Schools full-time in the fall of 1999, about half of my first days of school were done under an expired contract. It is looking more and more like this year's first day will be another, making two in a row. (Three in a row is the record--2003, 2004, 2005.)

Why is this? Is it because MTEA, my union, is a bunch of hardened bastards who refuse to negotiate, who won't make concessions, whose only concerns are gimme, gimme, gimme? No.

In fact, every one of those expired-contract first days has been because the district's negotiators have delayed, stalled, demanded arbitration, withheld critical information from the union, and bargained in the media rather than at the table.

Indeed, in the current round of negotiations, the union has been ready for two years to get a settlement, and the district has gone months at a time, literally, before returning to the table with new or adjusted offers. Late last winter, for example, when the media campaign ramped up about teachers' health care plans (this following months of ignoring union requests to bargain), MTEA requested utilization data in order to help craft a revised proposal. Those data were delivered just a few weeks ago, long after the superintendent released his draft budget proposing to lay off hundreds of employees, long after the layoff notices were sent. In the intervening months a solution could have been achieved, except the district delayed because it is their strategy to fight these things in the media and make the union look like the bad guys.

All of this is outrageous, right? A public entity negotiating in bad faith with its employees and spreading lies in the media, this should cause all good people to stand and demand better accountability. But no. What is it, really, that spurs outrage?

Viagra.

(I am anxious to see what google ads appear in the sidebar after this.)

For some reason--I cannot say for sure, but I am guessing the AP was tipped off by district officials--a long-running legal battle over whether the district's prescription formulary can offer female sexual dysfunction treatments but deny coverage for male sexual dysfunction treatments made the news this week. After all, it had been a few weeks since any news had broken about the status of contract (non-)talks and whether there were any breakthroughs that might have saved some teachers' jobs. So someone felt the pot needed stoking, and then the AP offered its story. Viagra is, literally, a much sexier story than the way the district conducts its negotiations.

And, of course, outrage. Jason Fields, reliably anti-MPS Milwaukee legislator: "You've got to be kidding me. [. . .] What are our priorities?"

I expect more soon, and perhaps even renewed calls for state intervention. One state legislator wrote to me, "[This] is exactly what nauseates me and 99% of Milwaukee when it comes to teacher compensation. MTEA has not done anything creative since they were created."

Again, outrage. And for false reasons, too: MTEA has been incredibly creative in trying to find solutions. In 2005 for example, when the contract went to arbitration (an arbitration that was settled after, technically, it had expired), the union offered to have every teacher pay 1% of salary, on top of out-of-pocket costs, to health care costs. This plan would have saved taxpayers money compared to the district plan the arbitrator settled on--in fact, it would have been much more expensive for me at the time, I wrote. Yet it was only long after the arbitration that the media, who were allies with the district in its public negotiating, finally admitted that maybe the teachers had a point. This should be outrageous. But it's not--viagra is.

More recently, the Board proposed a way to offset health care costs: a two-day furlough for all teachers ... equivalent to about 1% of salary! That the district took so long to come around to the idea should also be outrageous. But it's not--viagra is.

MTEA had to drag the district kicking and screaming into adopting a wellness plan that has saved the district tens of millions in costs and has meant that MPS's health cost inflation has been lower than the regional and national average. The union got in changes to retiree health care that had those costs decreasing for several years. That the union is still blamed for out of control health spending despite its creativity and success should be outrageous. But it's not--viagra is.

MTEA has also designed one of the most innovative programs to identify, mentor, and if needed fire underperforming teachers, but you wouldn't know that from the way people talk about the union protecting bad teachers. The way the media attacked MTEA for letting young teachers be laid off rather than some undefined, non-specific, theoretical group of "bad" teachers certainly seemed to me like it should be outrageous. But it's not--viagra is.

Beyond that, the fact still remains that MPS teachers are just about the lowest paid in SE Wisconsin, and even counting our benefits we are average in total compensation compared to peer districts. You don't know this because it's not, apparently, important for stories about MPS to include context. It's not, apparently, a priority to make sure that the people who choose to work with the most difficult students in the region get rewarded for their service. This, too, should be outrageous. But it's not--viagra is.

So go ahead. Have your viagra outrage orgy. (Now I'm just asking for trouble with the google ads.) Get it all out of your system, make your comments about how this will make it easier for teachers to molest students or whatever else it is you feel you need to say. Believe me, I've seen that and worse in many places the last couple of days, sick as it is. Because in a few days I head back in to school to do what none of the rest of you seem to care about: Actually helping the children of Milwaukee have a better life than what they see around them every day. Your outrage does squat to change that.

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