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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Some stuff, we did know. It's what no one knew that is killing us.

by folkbum

Here's a comment from the thread below on MPS layoffs that encapsulates a common sentiment and that will serve as a good entree into this post, which I have been writing in my head for the last week or so:
Why not point the finger at yourself, the union, AND MPS administration? You KNEW there were going to be changes. The union KNEW there were going to be changes. MPS admin KNEW there were going to be changes. Instead of waiting to find out what they were, a contract was signed.
The background to this comment is this: My employer, the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and its teachers, represented by our union, the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA), have spent much of the last decade in contract-negotiation deadlock. We had a contract that expired on June 30, 2009, and for all of the 2009-2010 school year, we worked without a contract at all. The previous superintendent and his labor negotiators were being quite putzy about the whole thing--phone calls would go unreturned, negotiations would be canceled at the last minute, mutually-agreed deadlines would fly by with nary a peep from the MPS side of Vliet St. Plus, summer 2010 brought an ugly round of teacher layoffs.

In 2010, the Board hired a new superintendent, who came in July 1 intent upon having more of a clean slate to start his tenure, and who directed his people to get down to business and settle the contract. In October, the union and the district came to an agreement, and teachers and the Board ratified it soon after. This contract included many concessions by the teachers, including a pay freeze for two years (and, therefore, no back pay), a new drug plan, and contributions to health insurance costs. The magic benefit-to-salary ratio, which is the right's favorite talking point against MTEA, fell by nearly 7.5%. The contract was to cover not just 2009-2011, the two years that would have been covered if we'd settled by June 30, 2009, but also 2011-2013, which meant neither side had to immediately turn right back around and start re-negotiating for another contract.

Those of you with a rudimentary sense of chronology will be able to figure out that all of this, except the votes to approve the contract by both sides, happened prior to the 2010 election, in which Republicans won a majority of both state houses and the governorship.

Now, what the comment above refers to is the notion that MPS and MTEA should have known that "changes" would be coming to education in Wisconsin based on the November election results. There are a number of honest responses to this, the most basic of which is that neither the union nor the district had as its top concern the politics of the election; both sides simply wanted to not have to worry about having a lack of a contract over their heads.

But it would be dishonest to say that there was no attention paid to the politics. By October, when the agreement was reached, it was pretty clear that the election was not going to be good for schools. Tom Barrett had little chance of winning, the "enthusiasm gap" was real enough to mean that Democrats were better than even to lose one or both state houses. So you know what? Both sides, MPS and MTEA, tried to protect themselves from what they knew was coming.

Because we did, in fact, know things in October 2010. Scott Walker had an education platform, and it was this:
  • Establish benchmarks for students in K-3 and hold back students who can’t read by the end of third grade.
  • Evaluate teachers based on five criteria: 1) Planning and preparation, 2) Classroom and environment, 3) Quality of instruction, 4) Professional responsibilities, and 5) Yearly student progress. The overall ratings will be “ineffective,” “needs improvement,” “satisfactory” or “exemplary.” Teachers with two years of ineffective ratings will lose their teaching license. Those with satisfactory and exemplary scores will be eligible for bonuses.
  • Reinstate the Qualified Economic Offer and tie it to revenue caps.
  • Consider local economic factors in settling contract disputes.
  • Facilitate local efforts to post school expenditures online.
  • Allow school districts to enroll in the state health care plan.
  • Remove the enrollment and eligibility caps on Milwaukee’s School Choice program and virtual charter schools statewide.
That was it. That is a complete and accurate summary of what Scott Walker was campaigning on in the fall of 2010 (see it on his campaign site too). In addition, there was a pretty good sense that Republicans would not follow the then-current statutory annual increase of ~$250 per student in funding across the state.

So when teachers went into the final stages of negotiation, we protected ourselves against the changes that we reasonably expected were coming: The contract maintains evaluation procedures and seniority rules, even though it changes some of the salary-advancement requirements. The contract freezes salary and lowers benefit costs, so it makes a possible switch back to the QEO more doable in the future. And it included changes to the health insurance program that makes joining the state health care plan less attractive for the administration.

At the same time as we teachers protected ourselves, the district wrung concessions from teachers that meant it could spend less in 2011-2012 than the then-statutory increase would have allowed. Figuring that as long as the increase was positive, even if it weren't $250 per student, the district could start the year on a sound footing with few if any layoffs--unlike what they had just gone through in the summer of 2010.

So what drops in February 2011? Not, absolutely not what's listed above. Walker's education platform did not say word one about slashing teacher salary by mandating minimum pension and insurance contributions. Walker did not suggest at all during the campaign that such a thing was coming. And the same is true for eliminating collective bargaining over everything but salary, limiting salary increases to the rate of inflation, and dissolving the unions and the protections that they provide. Not one single word of that was breathed during Walker's campaign--something that Walker has admitted to, since he is not so stupid that he would kill his chances of getting elected.

Further, Walker and Republicans absolutely did not campaign on slashing education spending statewide by nearly a billion dollars a year. I can guarantee you that if the GOP had walked around last fall telling parents and local school boards that they would be gutting the funds provided to schools, they would have lost in a landslide.

So in October of 2010, MPS and MTEA were looking at a contract that was going on two years expired, and both sides agreed that was too long. They were looking at specific and credible campaign promises from Republicans that would mean changes to the way they did business, and both sides agreed to solutions that addressed those promises.

In short, when the comment above asks why we didn't wait another four or six months or eight months until all the changes were settled law, we all, both sides, wanted to be proactive. We negotiated and approved a contract that not only saved the taxpayers money but accounted for the changes to education law that were promised to us by the governor-elect and his GOP majority.

And, worse, had we waited, we would not have been able to negotiate a contract at all! There was no reason to believe that once we did sign the contract, it would suddenly become illegal to re-open the contract for negotiation or work on a contract for 2013-2015 and beyond that responded to any additional changes that may come along. (It remains to be seen whether the contracts signed by other municipalities and districts after the effective date written in the budget repair bill can be challenged in court. The state's Department of Administration offered guidance that implementation of the changes should not begin until July 1, but when the state Supreme Court allowed the bill to take effect it did not change the language of the bill.)

So yes, commenters, we did know that there would be changes. And we accounted for them. It's what we didn't know--what no one knew until February 2011 because Walker and his minions deliberately hid their plans--that is killing MPS and causing additional layoffs. It's what we didn't know that is causing layoffs in districts and municipalities all across the state, and severe cutbacks in services. It's what no one knew that caused an uproar heard around the globe, nearly five months of daily protests at the Capitol, and unprecedented recall elections in all corners of the state.

So why should we point fingers at ourselves? MPS and MTEA negotiated $100 million in taxpayer savings over two years, something that under normal circumstances would be huge. But in the face of the ambush Scott Walker and the GOP sprang on the state of Wisconsin, Walker supporters have no defense left except to blame the victims of that ambush. Very classy.

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Additionally: Another commenter in that thread asks why MPS couldn't have had our own "Kaukauna Miracle," noting the story that the Kaukauna school district used Walker's "tools" to create a surplus in the face of state-funding cuts. First, read Briane Pagel's brilliant dissection of this "miracle." It turns out that it's pretty easy to claim a surplus after you layoff a big chunk of staff first. UPDATED TO ADD: Economist Jake Formerly Of The LP has a smart take, too.

Second, realize that the fix was always in for Milwaukee, and even with Walker's "tools" in full effect, there was no way to turn a surplus. When state aid figures were made final this week, MPS was down $54.6 million. (This figure does not include cuts to categorical aids and grants, such as the the very successful Milwaukee Math Partnership; MPS estimates its total loss at more than $84 million for next year.) The state's own estimate of what Walker's "tools" could save MPS was $42 million, though state Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts and others determined that the state's numbers were high. MTEA, which knows what its members make and what the pension and insurance contributions would add up to, estimated savings through Walker's tools at a mere $36 million.

Either way, you can see the numbers don't add up, and MPS was going to need to find between $40 million and $50 million in additional cuts. Milwaukee was never going to get to a surplus, period.

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And finally, I will continue to call for MTEA and MPS to work out additional concessions before the window closes at the end of this month.

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