One recent Wednesday night, Superintendent Jon Bales received a pair of phone calls at home that dismayed but did not surprise him.
The president of the local teachers’ union called him with updates from the state Capitol, a short drive away in Madison, Wis. Dozens of teachers from the DeForest Area School District had joined the burgeoning protests there, Rick Hill told him, and many educators were unlikely to report to work the next day.
Mr. Bales soon realized he would have to call off school. That night, the two men—who are on friendly terms—worked out an agreement. Teachers in the district would not call in sick, but would make up the lost time by working a day they were scheduled to have off. Mr. Bales began calling administrators and arranging outreach to parents, whose plans for the next day would be disrupted.
Massive protests have been the norm in Wisconsin in recent weeks, since Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, unveiled a plan to strip many collective bargaining rights from teachers and most other public employees. GOP elected officials are pursuing similar measures in Ohio and other states.
But here in the DeForest district, like some others around the state, collective bargaining, while often difficult, has produced agreements that generally satisfied both sides.
Gov. Walker’s plan would upend existing relationships, a number of superintendents and local teachers’ union leaders say, and create the potential for more division. It would give leaders in the DeForest district, which has 3,250 students, far more power to determine everything from teachers’ health-care coverage to school assignments and class sizes—matters that would fall outside the scope of collective bargaining.
“In the end, on a local basis, what we have is still each other,” Mr. Bales said in an interview in his office this week. “Our culture here is built around trying to engage everybody in [the] conversation.”
The furor over the governor’s plan has left administrators like Mr. Bales, as well as teachers and parents, with an unfamiliar and still-evolving challenge: How to work through the upheaval and go about the business of educating students—while trying to hold their school communities together.
“You have to have respect for the fact that people are being impacted personally,” said Mr. Bales. “But from our perspective, and from the teachers’ leadership as well, you have to keep the kids in mind first. You have to separate the personal impact from the impact on the system.”
Mr. Hill, a 58-year-old educator who teaches special education, worries that the cooperative approach will be replaced by one that encourages both sides to “get the best you can, when you can.”
“I’m really worried,” the local union president explained. “It’s the Wild West if you’ve taken away all sense of what’s reasonable, of how you work through things.”
DeForest district officials and members of the teachers’ union, an affiliate of the 98,000-member Wisconsin Education Association Council, or WEAC, and the National Education Association, use an approach known as consensus bargaining in their contract negotiations, in which they begin by laying out broad principles and gradually move into contract specifics.
During contract negotiations, the two sides sometimes meet in the district’s offices. On other occasions, they gather at the local library in DeForest, whose 9,000 or so residents include workers employed in manufacturing, farming, and government, often in Madison, just to the south. Votes on various provisions are taken by hand, with participants signaling thumbs up, thumbs down, or thumbs sideways. A single thumbs-down is sufficient to nix a provision, so participants work to reach an accord in which all parties have at least a neutral, or sideways, position, explained Vickie Adkins, the district’s human-resources director.
The district’s contract gives teachers average salary increases of about 2-4 percent a year, when step pay raises and additional raises for different classifications of educators are included, Mr. Bales estimates. He puts the average teachers’ salary at $52,600 a year. Gov. Walker’s plan would limit yearly raises to no more than the Consumer Price Index—which rose by 1.6 percent for the most recent year ending in January—unless voters in local communities approve a higher increase.
The pay increase was made possible partly because the district, which has a total budget of $35 million, and union agreed to revise the contract to move to a lower-cost insurance carrier, school system officials said. Under the governor’s plan, health-insurance decisions at the local level would no longer be subject to bargaining, meaning district officials could set health-coverage policy on their own.
Gov. Walker argues that requiring teachers to pay for pensions—most chip in nothing now—and restricting collective bargaining on health care and other issues will help districts save more than enough money to offset more than $834 million in reductionsin state aid to schools over the coming two years.
Mr. Bales, now in his 13th year as superintendent, worries the proposal would bring more costs than savings to his district, though he says he can’t yet predict the size of the gap. Districts across Wisconsin faced a deadline this week to send preliminary notices to employees who would be laid off. Mr. Bales and Ms. Adkins hope to avoid layoffs for next academic year by not filling an anticipated 12 to 20 vacancies that will be likely be created by retirements and other departures.
A higher number of the DeForest district’s 258 teachers than usual have indicated that they plan to retire after this year, citing concerns about either losing or having to pay more for retirement benefits, because of shrinking local budgets and potential reductions created by the governor’s proposal.
Mr. Hill says he also hears worries and frustration, particularly from teachers who say educators are being unfairly targeted in the state, and around the country, by those who blame them for budget woes and longstanding problems in schools.
“I’ve never heard as many people say, ‘I’m getting out,’ ” he said.
Labor Clout Criticized
Critics of teachers’ unions, and advocates for tighter controls on government spending, sometimes argue that collective bargaining tips negotiating scales heavily in favor of labor organizations and prevents management from making changes to district operations that can save money and improve student achievement. Some say that the prospect of angering politically active teachers’ unions can put pressure on district leaders to accept deals they might not like.
In that context, some Wisconsin school administrators’ qualms about the governor’s proposal are easier to understand, said Mike Antonucci, the director of the Education Intelligence Agency, a California-based organization that researches and is often critical of unions. Should Gov. Walker’s plan win approval, school officials in local districts will be left dealing with frustrated employees at a time when their schools are facing painful budget cuts.
“District administrators don’t want any trouble,” Mr. Antonucci said in an e-mail. Administrators, he said, “are the ones who have to live with the new arrangement—with angry unions that haven’t been eliminated, just defanged.”
In the DeForest district, meanwhile, Mr. Bales’ efforts to mitigate the impact of the state tensions have also included reaching out to parents, many of whom were outraged at seeing school canceled even for day (some Wisconsin districts were out much longer).
The superintendent estimates that about 90 percent of calls and e-mails he received were from people who were upset over the district employees’ staying away from school to protest.
The reaction was more mixed in the 6,000-student Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District, which canceled two days of classes because many teachers and other employees did not report for work, said Superintendent Don Johnson. Opinion from parents, he said, seemed to be roughly divided in thirds, either supporting the teachers’ action, opposing it, or ending up somewhere in between.
Some parents in the district, located in suburban Madison, worried that educators would promote a “union point of view” in their classes, Mr. Johnson said. As the public protests played out, the superintendent sent a memo to teachers, referring them to a policy that requires educators to present controversial topics impartially. He also advised teachers to avoid discussing the Wisconsin fight entirely if it had nothing to do with their classes.
“We need to understand that our charge is to help students understand issues,” Mr. Johnson said. His message was that the controversy is “right here, right now,” he noted, “but it doesn’t really belong in a chemistry classroom.”
During the protests, reports emerged that some teachers around the state had asked doctors to give them notes reporting that they were sick—and as a result would be paid for the days they missed—when in fact they were attending the protests. Mr. Johnson also asked teachers who did not report to school and instead attended the protests to take leave without pay, rather than reporting sick, which, he explained in a Feb. 20 memo, would “clarify for the public that we are all acting honestly and honorably.”
Many educators are scared for the future of their profession, and worried about the quality of education declining with budget cuts, said Pat Keeler, a social studies teacher and union member. A lot of his colleagues have spoken to him about other career options.
“People are mad,” the 44-year-old said. “They don’t understand why they’re scapegoats for Wisconsin’s budget ills.”
Some public resentment over the canceled classes lingers. Mr. Johnson said he had received eight public-records requests related to the work stoppage, the majority from people in the community wanting the names of district employees who had not reported to work and what reasons they had given.
No ‘Paid Guns’
In the Watertown Unified School District, a 4,000-student system in a city less than an hour east of Madison, Superintendent Douglas Keiser and Rusty Tiedemann, who helps negotiate for the local teachers’ union, have spoken regularly during recent weeks, meeting for breakfast and exchanging phone calls.
District officials have a history of working through vexing issues with the union, Mr. Keiser said. The two sides avoid bringing what he calls “paid guns”—outside union negotiators and the district’s lawyer—into the negotiations.
Both men say they hear questions every day from teachers and other employees about what’s ahead for the school budget and staff members’ contracts. But until they know the fate of the governor’s proposal, they can’t provide answers.
“It’s been challenging to know how to act and what to do,” said Mr. Tiedemann, a health teacher. “Everyone’s afraid that actions that we take may be interpreted as an affront to our community, or to our district, which is not what it’s meant to be at all. We’re very happy with our district, and with our community.”
Stephanie Griggs, a parent of three students in Watertown, has a different perspective. The former school board member believes teachers and other public workers need to contribute to their pensions and health insurance, as is the norm in the private sector, and says that the state needs to curb collective bargaining rights to change to keep costs to taxpayers low.
Wisconsin’s largest teachers’ union, WEAC, has said it will accept the governor’s proposal to pay more for pensions and health coverage, but not the collective bargaining changes.
“Everyone is feeling the pinch,” Ms. Griggs said. “I don’t know anybody but maybe two or three people who have gotten pay increases in the past five years.”
She also worries that the ongoing controversy will make it less likely that local voters will approve important future spending measures to help schools in the district.
“What’s happening now is pitting parents against teachers,” she said. “Parents don’t feel comfortable talking to teachers about it, and teachers don’t feel comfortable talking to parents about it. So it’s kind of like they just don’t talk.”
Mr. Keiser, the superintendent, says he’s tried to reach deals with the local union that are fair to teachers and taxpayers. Whatever becomes of Gov. Walker’s measure, he hopes some measure of cooperation continues.
Neither side would accept “just acquiescing to the other,” Mr. Keiser said. In most negotiations, “you don’t come away feeling like you won, you don’t come away feeling like you lost. … You have to be reasonable,” he added, because if you aren’t, “you’ll pay the price the next time around.”
Coverage of leadership, human-capital development, extended and expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, atwww.wallacefoundation.org.