A dispute has developed between Madison teachers and the school district over changes to contracts secured during quickie negotiations in March. John Matthews, executive director of Madison Teachers Inc., is upset about what he calls an "unfair and unreasonable" process.
"The bargaining didn't have to [involve] so much animosity," says Matthews. "If they wanted to make revisions, all they had to do is talk with us and we could have worked through something that would be acceptable to both sides. But they didn't bother to talk about it. You don't buy good will this way."
Elsewhere, in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, Matthews referred darkly to "the ill will of the board of education and superintendent" toward his members, as shown in these contract talks.
But school board members and district administrators take a different view, saying Matthews and his staff were at the bargaining table and agreed to all changes made to the contracts during an all-night negotiation that ended March 12; MTI members ratified the deal the next day. School Board President Maya Cole suggests that Matthews now has "buyer's remorse."
In a written statement, Superintendent Dan Nerad explains, "In all cases, voluntary settlements were reached and the contracts were approved by both sides. Were there changes in the contract? Yes, and all these changes were signed off on as part of the contract agreements."
Bargaining between the district and its unions took place in a marathon session aimed at producing an agreement during a volatile and uncertain time. Matthews says he felt pressured to get the contracts done before the new system pushed by Gov. Scott Walker and Republican lawmakers limiting collective bargaining in Wisconsin went into effect.
The resulting contracts, which the district says may allow it to weather expected cuts in state funding without significant layoffs, included deep concessions by teachers and other employees. It includes a wage freeze and increased contributions to retirement accounts and health insurance that will save the district $15 million in just the first contract year.
But Matthews is also upset by other changes in the contracts that he considers "inhumane." They include:
- Letting the district increase or decrease wages without negotiating for the Special Educational Employees unit (which largely represents clerical staff, computer and AV techs and programmers) in 2012-13.
- Eliminating health insurance choice. Employees used to be able to choose from WPS and Group Health Cooperative, paying a premium for WPS coverage. Now they must use Group Health Cooperative.
- Ending a system of reassignment and voluntary transfer, which resulted in the layoff (and subsequent reinstatement) of 10 occupational therapy assistants.
- Removing a professional development visitation day allowing teachers to learn by observing another classroom (in or out of the district).
- Not extending the Teacher Retirement Emeritus program for the customary four contract years. Instead, the district only extended this teacher retirement incentive through the current two-year contracts.
- Amending the structure of elementary teacher planning time and school day. Matthews says teachers will have less flexibility in setting their work hours.
According to Matthews, these changes show how Walker's proposed legislation (still tied up in court) has already produced an imbalance of power forcing unions to make concessions they don't want to achieve a contract deal.
"There's a great deal of animosity toward the terms of the bargain that were virtually forced on the union," Matthews says.
School board member Ed Hughes believes the changes do not represent any significant shift in power and "in the grander scope of things … are fairly minor." Moreover, he feels they are fully appropriate and in keeping with the district's goal of "fostering student achievement."
Cole says Matthews requested the board be involved in these negotiations, an uncommon step. She says Matthews was at the table and could have said no at any time. Instead, she says he employed negotiating tactics that made the process difficult, such as trying to merge workers in the support unit with the teachers' bargaining unit, which did not happen.
"There was a lot going on, and we were making a good-faith effort to make sure the system kept running," recalls Cole. "A lot of this had to do, and rightly so, with people not knowing what was going to happen to their jobs or what was happening at the state level. This took over our lives, trying to figure out what was going on."
Cole insists the board is not anti-union, and denies accusations that she is conservative. She's frustrated that Matthews makes statements that are "volatile," "bombastic," and in her mind, not entirely true.
Since former Madison Superintendent Art Rainwater replaced Cheryl Wilhoyte (who regularly butted heads with Matthews), the relationship between the Madison school district and its unions has been relatively tranquil.
District officials and Matthews have met regularly with Madison mediator Howard Bellman to circumvent and resolve disputes. Bellman says the result has been "a creative relationship between labor and management" that has worked uncommonly well.
"The fundamental difference in labor and management will always stay in place," says Bellman. "I can't foresee a time where John and his successor say that everything is fine and fair. That's not his job."
Nerad takes a similar view: "There are bound to be disagreements at times between the two sides. The best way to approach these disagreements is to continue to work together with the unions to see what can be resolved to the satisfaction of both sides."
Matthews frames it differently.
"It's essential we knock the edge off the hostility and come to some mutual agreement," he says. "You don't have high productivity if you have apprehensive feelings. It's incumbent for the superintendent to step up to the plate and provide some leadership. I haven't seen it yet in the talks."