Act 10 effects vary in the North Shore
Some districts have taken full advantage; others have yet to deal with new rules
Just as there was no "one size fits all" impact from Act 10 to the eight school districts covered by North Shore NOW, the outlook for the upcoming budget year is a mixed bag but there is no question Act 10 has made an impact.
"This year we were taking the first steps in a new era," Whitefish Bay District Administrator Mary Gavigan said. "It still is a new era but we continue to reaffirm the things we value, quality of education and services."
Teachers union presidents throughout the districts also echo some of the same thoughts.
"Teachers are concerned about how students are being served," said Bob Wells, president of the Mequon-Thiensville Education Association.
In some ways the two districts are a study in contrasts. Whitefish Bay has increasing enrollment, helping them balance financial issues, while Mequon-Thiensville continues to struggle with the impact of declining enrollment. The viewpoints of administrators and union representatives provide a peek at the 2012-2013 school year, arriving in the classroom in late summer, but feeling the changes from Act 10 on almost a daily basis.
District Administrator Deb Kerr said she wants the district to focus on the continued growth and improvement of students, to position the district to eliminate the achievement gap.
"Act 10 has forced us to be more creative and innovative in thinking about what needs to be done," Kerr said.
Director of Finance Emily Koczela said that although there are challenges, the largest challenge is not related to Act 10.
"The challenge across the state is to be wise with our additional authority," she said.
There are a host of things districts can do unilaterally, from choosing health insurance packages to setting the school calendar that were once subject to collective bargaining.
"We have made a strong effort to talk with teachers about issues and have chosen the everyone-will-participate route," she said. "We are focusing on a use of time that is better for children."
Districts are discussing post employment benefits but will soon begin discussing pay.
"The revolution that Act 10 allowed is the vibrant discussion of what we should pay people," Koczela said. "That is the revolution for 2012-2013."
Union president Jeff Bersch said the administration's outreach to the staff has eased concerns.
"We have been promised no impact next year," Bersch said. "The district works really well with us and has kept us up to date - and we have the wizard of numbers (Koczela). Overall morale is not bad because of Act 10. We didn't lose any jobs and class sizes are the same."
Bersch said the staff is more concerned about what will happen in a year when the district moves from three to two buildings.
"We hope to plan and coordinate that throughout the upcoming year," he said.
Although the teachers had a contract covering them until June 30 of this year, Act 10 had a significant impact on the district during the 2011-2012 school year. Unable to use the tools in the legislation to increase health insurance premiums and reduce retirement costs and facing a loss in state aid, the district cut five aide positions and another 4.5 teaching positions.
"We did it through retirement on the teaching side except for one position," District Administrator Rachel Boechler said.
Class sizes in the seventh and eighth grades increased from 21 to 25, while in all other grades there was an increase of one student per class.
Teachers pay 10 percent of the health insurance premium under the current contract but the district will see a $300,000 savings from the retirement contributions during the upcoming budget year.
"We were about that in the negative last year," Boechler said. "We also have more students coming in at the K5 and first grade level and will be adding classrooms at both grades."
Boechler said Act 10 had a significant impact on morale.
"There has been a lot of fear," Boechler said. "Teachers are watching what happens in other districts and assume the worst."
The district issued teachers contracts for next year in March to try and ease the anxiety, Boechler said.
Cary Tianen is co-president of the local union and she acknowledges that teachers have been paying attention to other districts and are concerned about what lies ahead.
"Act 10 certainly did not improve anything in our schools," she said, citing the larger classes and lost positions.
The union and the School Board have always had a civil if not amicable relationship, she said.
Tianen said the conversation about changes to post employment benefits is a concern.
"When you were a young teacher looking forward, it was a security that will no longer be there," she said.
The district paid for health insurance for five years for retiring teachers in the past.
Teachers in the Glendale-River Hills School District remain under a collective-bargaining contact through August, but have been contributing 15 percent toward their health insurance premiums, which is more than the 12.5 percent state mandate. Teachers also have been chipping in 5.9 percent toward their Wisconsin Retirement System contributions.
For the time being, District Administrator Larry Smalley said Glendale-River Hills remains in good shape, financially. This is due, in part, to an operating referendum passed last year that has netted a $300,000 surplus at the moment. Through the 2014-15 school year, the district will be receiving an additional $600,000 annually beyond the state-mandated levy cap.
This year, other employee groups - including administrators and custodians - have been without contracts and have been following the provisions of Act 10.
While there have been initial savings, Smalley said he is concerned about the future, particularly if revenue remains flat and expenses inevitably increase.
"If you look at Act 10 closely, there is no provision to increase revenue in the next biennium," Smalley said. "This has created an environment of unknowns. If your expenses go up, yet your revenue doesn't, how do you offset that?"
While he acknowledges that the full effects have not yet been felt, Michael Birmingham, president of the Glendale-River Hills chapter of the North Shore Education Association, had sharp criticism toward Act 10.
"It is an absolute war on teachers, from wage restriction to the loss of bargaining contracts," Birmingham said. "Act 10 does nothing good for those who teach in public schools. School Boards are thrown into the role of holding all the employment tools."
Smalley said there is unease about the future throughout the district.
"Yes, in the short term, Act 10 has been helpful," Smalley said. "I only hope it's one step of the plan."
Maple Dale-Indian Hill
Few employees in the Maple Dale-Indian Hill School District have felt the full effects of Act 10. Teachers remain under a collective bargaining contract through June 30, 2013, and custodians are under a contract through June 30, 2014.
Maple Dale-Indian Hill also is in the midst of a 10-year referendum that began in the 2009-10 school year. A portion of that referendum called for an additional $800,000 annually beyond the state-mandated levy cap.
Annually, Business Administrator Gary Swalve said the goal of that referendum was to place $400,000 of the $800,000 into the reserves in the fund balance, which had been progressively depleted before the referendum was approved. But Swalve said decreases in state aid and, consequently, the revenue limit formula districts work off has resulted in less than anticipated revenue. While money is still being stored away in fund balance, it is less than what district officials had hoped.
While new collective bargaining contracts were drawn up on the cusp of the implementation of Act 10, district officials point out concessions have long been a part of the landscape at Maple Dale-Indian Hill.
Annette Evans, president of the Maple Dale-Indian Hill chapter of the North Shore Education Association, said teachers have long contributed 10 percent toward their health insurance benefits in exchange for higher contributions, on the district's part, toward retirement benefits.
"We've been able to work collaboratively in this district, so something like Act 10 really was unnecessary," Evans said. "Our current School Board and administrators understand how to treat their employees, and that's evident when you see us being named the No. 1 best small workplace (by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) two years in a row."
Swalve said the custodial group also made concessions as their contract was enacted. Employees in this category have frozen salaries for two years, are paying 10 percent toward health insurance premiums and contribute half toward their Wisconsin Retirement System pension benefits.
The district has struggled with the dual problem of declining enrollment and revenue limits for a number of years.
Employees who were not in unions have seen three changes in health insurance carriers over the last few years as the School Board worked to cut expenses. The Wisconsin County Association provides health insurance for all employees now, with the teachers switching last July.
"We have been living in an Act 10 type world even before Act 10," District Administrator Demond Means said.
Act 10 helped the district overall, Means said, by allowing the health insurance and retirement contribution changes as well as salary freezes.
For 2012-2013, the district has a $1 million budget shortfall.
"We reduced all building and district budgets by 5 percent," Means said.
Some staff positions are being reduced due to lower student enrollment. There will be a salary freeze for the second year in a row for teachers, a direct use of Act 10.
"There is $560,000 coming from that," Means said.
In light of the tough financial situation, union president Bob Wells said teachers are concerned about their job security but more so about programs for students.
"As professional educators our primary mission is to foster student learning, growth and responsibility," he said. "A healthy environment for achieving these objectives requires mutual trust, respect and support. There needs to be a place at the table for everyone who has a vested interest in repairing budgets and in reforming education."
Means said the district is already looking at insurance costs and user fees as preliminary planning begins for the 2013-2014 budget.
District Administrator Rick Monroe said 2011-2112 was a challenging year for the high school district as administrators, School Board members, teachers and other faculty entered a new, unknown frontier.
"Having a collective bargaining agreement in place always gave us structure," Monroe said. "We could always turn to it to resolve any questions that might come up."
Rather than devote manpower and resources toward curriculum and classroom initiatives, Monroe said administrators and board members literally spent hundreds of hours this past school year working on a number of details, including enactment of an employee handbook and hammering out details on post-employment and pension benefits.
Monroe said the entire Nicolet community has a certain degree of angst about the future, which he characterized as being filled with unknowns.
"Everything is pretty much in a state of flux," Monroe said. "There really isn't any feeling of absolute security anymore."
David Quam, president of the Nicolet chapter of the North Shore Education Association, echoed many of Monroe's sentiments.
"In the world of education, Act 10 has been pretty tough for all of us," Quam said. "A new system was put into place, and that happens from time to time, but there was nothing to replace it with. That's what's been so hard about it."
Nicolet passed an operating referendum last year. Through 2015-16, the district is taking in an additional $2.15 million annually beyond the state-mandated levy cap.
Act 10 had "very much of a detrimental impact" on the Shorewood public education community this past school year, Superintendent Blane McCann said. While employee contributions have increased, Shorewood - like many districts - took a hit in state aid when it came to per-pupil funding.
"There have been morale issues," McCann said. "It's caused stress, and it's been a distraction as our educators are trying to work with students and help them meet their fullest potential."
In the past year, after the initial storm quieted, Shorewood Education Association President Mike Halloran said he took time to go through Act 10 with a fine-tooth comb.
"It's what I always suspected," Halloran said. "It's a poorly written piece of legislation. There's a real lack of guidance from the state and there's no precedent for this. I find it all very troubling."
Halloran said he remains grateful to live and work in a community that has a high regard for funding public education. But he is skeptical about the future of quality education in communities with less support.
"I'm concerned about the stability of public education across the state," Halloran said. "None of that structure is there anymore. Things can change at a moment's notice. It's been very difficult to watch."
While Shorewood has had several referendums in the past four years, none have directly impacted the general operating fund - the portion of the budget that funds day-to-day expenses. Additional referendum dollars have gone toward facility improvements and borrowing money to address post-retirement and pension benefits.
Given the state budget realities, District Administrator Mary Gavigan said school administrators early in the year recognized the district would need to create a balanced budget for 2012-2013.
The district is one of the more fortunate in that enrollment is rising slightly.
"We have staffed according to enrollment," she said. "There is fluctuation but we work diligently to protect small and reasonable class sizes."
Every year since 1993 when revenue controls went into effect, she said, there has been increasing pressure to make ever more challenging decisions.
"In the long term, districts will need to re-examine the salary schedule," she said. The Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission recently formalized the rules for calculating the salary base, which will allow the districts and unions to negotiate salary.
"The fiscal challenges are real," she said. "We need support for teachers and quality services and programs for students."
Union president Michelle Mooney said new common core state standards, new technology and intervention programs are exciting for teachers.
"We are looking forward to refining our practice to help students achieve," she said. "But, you can't ignore funding. The current fund model is not sustainable."
While there have not been teacher layoffs in the district, Mooney said there is concern about the future of teaching as a profession.
"We are concerned that in a few years this will not be a family sustaining profession," she said. "The younger teachers are deciding if they can afford to stay in the field."
Like it or not, for good or bad, Act 10 has changed the landscape for Wisconsin schools.
Gavigan said Act 10 had a broader impact than just pay and programs.
"It has been the beginning of a real transition for Wisconsin schools," she said. "As I reflect on the year, it is very important for the School Board and administration to provide leadership. This year was taking the first steps in a new era. It still is a new era and we have to keep moving to the future."
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