Governor Scott Walker's budget repair bill is about more than just money for health insurance and pension contributions, according to Anna Wendt, a teacher at Lake Denoon Middle School in Muskego.
Wendt is the chief negotiator for Muskego-Norway school district teachers and co-chair of the United Lakewood Educators - Muskego union. She said that while the increases in what is expected from public employees for health insurance and pensions is getting all the attention, collective bargaining is about so much more.
"Our ability to negotiate with our school district is part of our relationship," she said. "If the governor's bill passes, the need for conversation and bargaining is eliminated."
Having said that, however, Wendt does not believe the Muskego-Norway school board will sit down and start hashing out ways to cut benefits and programs. Instead, what worries teachers is that when Walker unveils his budget on Tues,, Feb. 22 it will undoubtedly include deep cuts to schools and that means the district will have to make some very tough decisions. With collective bargaining, the district and the union would sit down together and work out a plan. Without collective bargaining, the teachers don't have to be part of the conversation about solutions.
"Up until now, (the union) has always been able to sit down and work with the district to find solutions," Wendt said. "I don't think that will change, but money is always an issue that we've managed to work through together."
For teachers - and other public employees presumably - collective bargaining also means working out details like the length of a school day, staff development through the district and continuing education opportunities outside the district, in service days, certain job protections and the right to grieve situations.
"There are more benefits at risk than just money," Wendt stated.
Under Walker's plan, public employees would be expected to contribute up to 12 percent of their health insurance premiums and up to 50 percent of pension contributions. According to Wendt, Muskego-Norway teachers already pay 10 percent of their health insurance premiums and have for the last 15 years.
"For us, the increase to 12 percent isn't as painful," she admitted. "But it's still more money out of our pockets."
As for pensions, the school district pays 100 percent of the teachers' cost, but the trade off is with salary.
Wendt explained that the Qualified Economic Offer implemented under former Governor Tommy Thompson imposed a 3.8 percent increase limit on total compensation for teachers before going to arbitration. With health insurance costs continuously on the rise, the Muskego-Norway district typically reaches that 3.8 percent threshold pretty easily, but Wendt said the district and the union have always been able to work together to fit in a salary bump for a total increase of 3.9 percent without arbitration.
"Collective bargaining is what brings everyone to the table to work out agreements that are best for everyone," she concluded. "Without that provision, school districts don't have to include teachers in the conversation to solve the financial issues we're facing."