Friday, July 01, 2011

How getting rid of public employee collective bargaining is helping a Wisconsin school district

I just wanted to add in this report from Byron York about the Kaukauna school district in Wisconsin and how they're seeing immediate savings from the end to collective bargaining with the teachers union. As I reported below, the school district has now gone from a $400,000 deficit to a $1.5 million surplus. A lot of that is because of the contributions that the school employees will have to make to their pensions and the increase from 10% to 12.6% contribution to their health coverage. But school employees claim that they would have made those concessions without having to give up collective bargaining if those evil Republicans had been willing to negotiate. It was just Governor Walker's rabid desire to kill the teachers unions that led to the impasse.

Except that is phony. Cutting collective bargaining for the teachers has reaped immediate benefits to local school districts, as York explains.
Of course, Wisconsin unions had offered to make benefit concessions during the budget fight. Wouldn't Kaukauna's money problems have been solved if Walker had just accepted those concessions and not demanded cutbacks in collective bargaining powers?

"The monetary part of it is not the entire issue," says Arnoldussen, a political independent who won a spot on the board in a nonpartisan election. Indeed, some of the most important improvements in Kaukauna's outlook are because of the new limits on collective bargaining.

In the past, Kaukauna's agreement with the teachers union required the school district to purchase health insurance coverage from something called WEA Trust -- a company created by the Wisconsin teachers union. "It was in the collective bargaining agreement that we could only negotiate with them," says Arnoldussen. "Well, you know what happens when you can only negotiate with one vendor." This year, WEA Trust told Kaukauna that it would face a significant increase in premiums.

Now, the collective bargaining agreement is gone, and the school district is free to shop around for coverage. And all of a sudden, WEA Trust has changed its position. "With these changes, the schools could go out for bids, and lo and behold, WEA Trust said, 'We can match the lowest bid,'" says Republican state Rep. Jim Steineke, who represents the area and supports the Walker changes. At least for the moment, Kaukauna is staying with WEA Trust, but saving substantial amounts of money.

Then there are work rules. "In the collective bargaining agreement, high school teachers only had to teach five periods a day, out of seven," says Arnoldussen. "Now, they're going to teach six." In addition, the collective bargaining agreement specified that teachers had to be in the school 37 1/2 hours a week. Now, it will be 40 hours.

The changes mean Kaukauna can reduce the size of its classes -- from 31 students to 26 students in high school and from 26 students to 23 students in elementary school. In addition, there will be more teacher time for one-on-one sessions with troubled students. Those changes would not have been possible without the much-maligned changes in collective bargaining.

Teachers' salaries will stay "relatively the same," Arnoldussen says, except for higher pension and health care payments. (The top salary is around $80,000 per year, with about $35,000 in additional benefits, for 184 days of work per year -- summers off.) Finally, the money saved will be used to hire a few more teachers and institute merit pay.
Now imagine this story getting repeated in school district after district across the state. That must be the unions' biggest nightmare. Actual, immediate proof that the collective bargaining agreement was putting the schools into irredeemable debt and blocking needed reforms to help students rather than teachers. I hope the Republicans can get that message out there because we know that the unions will do anything possible to block the truth from coming out even if they have to gin up fake choking attacks from the state supreme court to discredit conservatives.