School districts throughout the state are saving millions of dollars due to the changes in collective bargaining. But those same districts are also dealing with massive cuts in state aid and new restrictions on how much they can spend.
The state capitol erupted into chaos after Gov. Scott Walker announced his plan to put strict limits on collective bargaining for public employees.
The plan, and the governor's budget, spurred an unprecedented recall effort. Democrats came just one seat short of gaining control of the state Senate. Public employees lost their ability to collectively bargain anything other than pay. That too is limited. Local governments and school districts received what the governor called "tools" to balance their budgets.
Now that the dust has settled at the state capitol and the protests are long gone, the question is how well are all of these changed working? Well, that depends who you ask."
I asked Dean DeBroux, the president of the Bay Lakes United Educators teachers' union, whether the changes at the state level will impact education.
He replied, "Absolutely."
When asked if the changes are working, Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wisconsin) told me, "I think overall, yeah."
The governor says by eliminating restrictions in the union contracts and making employees pay more for health insurance and retirement, school districts will be able to make up for the $800 million cut in state funding.
Much attention has been focused on the success stories. The Kaukauna Area School District, for example, lost $2.7 million in state aid. Despite that, the district turned a $400,000 deficit into a $1.5 million surplus.
"It is also allowing us to focus back on teaching students the way they should be taught and that's the number one goal here," said Bob Schafer, the financial manager for the Kaukauna district.
In addition to contributing to health care and pension benefits, teachers in Kaukauna will go from seven and a half hour days to eight hour days at no extra pay and have the number of paid days trimmed by four.
Union leaders like DeBroux say the changes are having a negative impact on employee morale.
"Kaukauna is kind of held up as a shining example of what you can do with Governor Walker's so-called tools. But what they're not looking at is what does it do to the staff?" he said.
The new state law requires public employees to put 5.8% of their salary towards retirement and pay at least 12% of the cost of health insurance.
In Pulaski, the school district saved $1.8 million by passing along some of the costs to employees.
"Fiscally, we have less money. Every school district has less money," said superintendent Mel Lightner. "But we also spend less money for health insurance. We spend less money for Wisconsin Retirement System."
As a result, Pulaski is spending more money fixing buildings, heating systems and roofs. The district doubled its capital improvement fund from $250,000 to $500,000.
I asked Lightner if more improvements will be made because of the changes that were made and the flexibility the school district has.
"Yes, absolutely," he said.
Barry Forbes from the Wisconsin Association of School Boards says the new flexibility allows districts to survive the massive drop in state funding.
"If we were not able to cut our costs we would have to lay off employees," Forbes said.
But it's not all rosy for school districts. Some are still struggling to balance their budgets. Under the new state budget, the Green Bay Area School District is projecting a $20 million deficit. The new employee contributions will make up $12 million of that. But that leaves an $8 million gap.
"For us right now, there is not enough there to make up the difference," said assistant superintendent Alan Wagner. He says the gap will be filled by using $3.5 million in federal money, $2 million from the elimination of positions, $1.7 million by freezing expenses and $800,000 by cutting curriculum costs.
I sat down with the governor to talk about school funding. He says districts if districts are having a hard time balancing their budgets, they can make employees pay even more for health insurance.
"They need to look back at that law and realize they're not capped at 12.6% they could actually go to say 15%, make up for whatever reductions they might need and still well below the statewide average for premiums. They could go higher than that," Walker said.
Keith Lucius is the assistant superintendent in Ashwaubenon, a district which balanced its budget by having employees contribute to retirement and health insurance and by switching to a new healthcare provider. Lucius says transferring even more of the costs to employees isn't fair.
"We're only going to be as good as our teachers," Lucius said, "We can't continue to put the burden of balancing our budget on our teachers' backs or our staff's back."
But the governor says paying 12%, even 15%, of health care costs is still a great deal.
"Most taxpayers in this state are paying, much, much, much more," Walker said.
"I think they think it's reasonable that all of us, me included because I'm going to pay it, pay a little bit for our pension and a little bit for our health care."
But union leaders say a "little bit" adds up.
"I wouldn't call an 8% cut in salary modest. It's a steep cut," DeBroux said. "It's one that we willingly made. We said we'd be willing to accept that as a concession but we want our voice and we want our rights and we want to be able to have a voice in the classroom and in the board room."
Now that school boards can make decisions on benefits without union approval, many districts are saving significant amounts of money, specifically when it comes to health care. In the past, the school board and union would have to agree to any changes. Now, the board can act on its own. Many are. We'll take a closer look at that Wednesday night.
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