Wis. Labor Bill Could Vex District-Union Relations

DeForest, Wis.

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.”

Consensus Bargaining

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


Stephanie Griggs, a parent of three public school students in Watertown, Wis., supports Gov. Scott Walker’s plans. The former school board member believes teachers and other public workers need to contribute to their pensions and healthcare, and says the state needs to curb collective bargaining rights to lower the cost to taxpayers.
—Adam Ryan Morris for Education Week

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.

 Now is the time to speak up for the arts, arts education and creative economy

  Take Action!


On March 1, Gov. Scott Walker presented his 2011 – 2013 Biennial Budget Address to a jointsession of the Wisconsin State Legislature.  The budget contains many obvious and not-so-obvious ways that the budget will affect the arts, arts education and creative economy in Wisconsin and the artistic and creative opportunities that Wisconsin residents deserve. 

Please note that the Governor’s proposal is the biennial budget’s starting point, and the numbers included in the final budget can go up or down from here in the state Legislature.  It should not be taken for granted that the Governor’s proposal will stand in the Legislature.  Some legislators may think the Governor’s budget went too far, others may think he hasn’t gone far enough.  

If you believe that the arts are “part of the solution” for Wisconsin, you must speak up!  Committed citizens – not just people who are directly involved in the arts, but everyone who cares about Wisconsin’s future – will need to advocate and educate in this environment.  If we want the decision-makers to recognize the public value of the arts for Wisconsin, we must take action. Our motto must be, “Don’t mourn, organize.”

Making change will take more than just sending emails to legislators.  We need to “surround” and educate legislators with information, data and stories about the value of state funding for their constituents. 

The focus of our advocacy right now will be the members of the State Legislature, since they will be engaged in the process of reviewing the budget for the next few months. 

Arts Day on March 3 (you can still register!) is the first step in this campaign, but the budget will unfold over the next few months and it’s up to all of us to get involved.  (Click here for Nine Reasons why you must be an advocate for the arts). 

Part #1 of this message is information on the proposed cuts to the Wisconsin Arts Board, with additional information about other budget proposals that will affect the arts in the state.  Part #2 is a brief overview of the budget process.  Part #3 is information on what YOU can and must do to advocate and educate, if you want to see change.

Please know that this is just the beginning of information from Arts Wisconsin and partners about the state budget and advocacy efforts.  We will continue to analyze the budget and its impact and facilitate the campaign for action.  We will keep you up to date and equipped with the information and tools you need to make your voice heard. 

Please make sure you – and others who care about Wisconsin’s future – are signed up for Arts Wisconsin’s Legislative Action Center and as a FaceBook “fan” to get the latest info, and up-to-the-minute information will be available on our website and using our Arts Activist Center.

Thanks for your good work.  Keep in touch with questions, comments, thoughts, and ideas.  Remember:  don’t mourn, organize!

Part #1:  Here’s how the proposed budget would affect the arts, arts education and creative economy in Wisconsin: 

Wisconsin Arts Board
The big news is that the Wisconsin Arts Board’s budget will be reduced by 58%, severely reducing its ability to serve the people of Wisconsin.  Here are the numbers:

Governor’s Budget Action – Arts Board

            FY 11 FY 12 Change % Notes
General Purpose Revenue (GPR) 2,417,700 759,100 -1,658,600 -68.6% General state funding
Program Revenue – Federal                   759,100 759,100     Funds from the National Endowment for the Arts
Program Revenue – State 525,600             24,900                      -500,700 -95.3% Percent for Art Program eliminated
Program Revenue – Other 20,000 20,000     Other Gifts or Grants Received
Total 3,722,400  1,563,100  -2,159,300     

The details are:  

  • Match GPR Funds to Federal Funds
    “The Governor recommends reducing expenditure authority to match GPR appropriations to PRF appropriations in the amounts shown to balance the budget.”  A state must have a state arts agency in order to receive funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and it must be able to match the funds it receives.  Until now, the State of Wisconsin has invested more than its federal award in the publicly valued programs and services of the Arts Board.
  • Consolidate the Arts Board into the Department of Tourism
    The Arts Board would cease to be an agency attached to tourism for administrative purposes.  Governor Walker’s budget would consolidate the Arts Board and make it a program of the Department of Tourism.  The result of this action will be the elimination of six employees, the transfer of four employees to Tourism, and the Arts Board and its now executive director reporting to the Secretary of Tourism.  The details of this reporting structure are unclear and will need further explanation from the Governor and/or the Department.
  • Elimination of the Percent for Art Program
    “The Governor recommends eliminating the Percent for Art program and associated expenditure and position authority to balance the budget.”  The Percent for Art program would cease to exist.  While no new public art projects would be begun, it is unclear if the Governor intends to void existing contracts.

The Governor’s Budget in Brief has this to say about the consolidation:  “Transfer the Arts Board to the Department of Tourism to help focus support for the arts and grow the economy.”

The Arts Board’s section of the budget says this:  “The Governor recommends eliminating the board as a separate agency and consolidating its responsibilities, functions, positions and assets into the Department of Tourism to increase operational efficiency, improve effectiveness and promote tourism development. The Governor also recommends transferring funding and position authority to the Department of Tourism for the support of the arts functions, which include arts community and economic development services, grant administration, initiatives in arts education and in underserved communities, and the Folk and Traditional Arts program.”  

In addition to the severe Arts Board cuts, the state budget reduces funding for education, local governments, the the UW System, and technical colleges.  The specific effects are currently unknown, but we are pretty sure that they will mean reduced access to the arts and arts education for Wisconsin’s students, since too often the arts are the first thing to go when budgets are tight.  David Brooks, in yesterday’s New York Times’ op-ed “The New Normal,” said, “…legislators and administrators are simply cutting on the basis of what’s politically easy and what vaguely seems expendable. In education, many administrators are quick to cut athletics, band, cheerleading, art and music because they have the vague impression that those are luxuries. In fact, they are exactly the programs that keep kids in school and build character.” (Read the full op-ed here).

Additional information about the budget’s impact on the arts will be coming to you soon.

Part #2:  The process:

Now the Governor has released the budget, the bill goes to the Joint Finance Committee (click here for the list of JFT members) for review.  (If your legislator is a Joint Finance Committee member, it will be especially important to connect with them in this process.)  After that, the Senate and Assembly each will have an opportunity to edit and revise, after which the budget bill will go to a “conference committee” made up of senators and assemblypeople for final review.  The Governor has a last chance for review (with the power to make significant changes) before signing the bill into law.  The budget must be signed by June 30 since the fiscal year starts on July 1.  Click here for more on “How a Bill Becomes Law.”

Part #3:  You have the power to make change.  But where to start?

1)       You can send an email message urging support for the Wisconsin Arts Board using Arts Wisconsin’s Legislative Action Center

2)       Think about contacts and connections, for yourself and your colleagues and friends, and how those people might be connected to your legislators.  Those are the people who should help advocate for this cause.  Start getting in touch with them to talk about educating your elected officials.

3)       Plan to make an appointment for you and colleagues to meet with your state Senator and Representative as soon as possible.    Legislative contact information is below. Arts Wisconsin will be happy to help you achieve these meetings.  Get in touch with Anne Katz, Executive Director, to discuss the details. 

4)       Start gathering your stories, information and data about the impact of the arts as part of the solution, and the need for creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship in our local and state economies, jobs in the creative sector, infusing the arts into education for all Wisconsin students, and keeping our communities healthy and vibrant by ensuring access to the arts for everyone, everywhere in the state.  You will educate legislators using: 

  • Stories (with pictures, if possible) about the ways in which the arts have had an effect on economic vitality, educational advancement, civic engagement, and healthy communities, in your community   
  • Information about programs and services supported and enjoyed by the community
  • Data about the number and scope of the people involved in the arts in your community

Administration/Legislature contact info:

Making the case – issue briefs to share:


Click here for a recent Wausau Daily Herald op-ed about the critical need for Wisconsin to invest in 21st century development strategies and opportunities.

Go to Arts Wisconsin’s Arts Activist Center for more information and ways to speak up for the arts.

Arts Action Alerts are a service of Arts Wisconsin and its Legislative Action Center.  Arts Wisconsin provides timely and critical information and actions on local and global arts, community and government issues throughout the year.   Please forward this email on to colleagues and peers who should have this information, so they can also stay in touch and involved.

If you are not already a member, please support Arts Wisconsin’s statewide advocacy, service and development work so that we can continue to do our work on your behalf, and so that everyone, everywhere in Wisconsin can continue to participate in and benefit from the arts, culture, creativity and innovation.  Many thanks!