On Wisconsin - Nothing Simple

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Things have boiled down to a nasty gurgling simmer in Wisconsin since the fracas over Governor Scott Walker’s plan to require public workers to contribute more to their healthcare and retirement. Union protestors claim they are willing to deal but they refuse to deal on losing their rights to collective bargaining. In the meantime the Democratic members of the Senate have skipped town for the friendly confines of Illinois to shut the government down. Things may be simmering, but they’re ready to boil over.

We’ve had protest groups and counter-protest groups. We’ve had polls that seem to favor Walker and others that seem to favor the unions. We have allegations of plutocracy, autocracy and the obligatory reference to Nazis. I could write on all this ad nauseam but I thought I would spend some time talking about what I know most about — working with a public employee union.

As you may know I spent several years on the Round Lake Area Schools Board of Education, the last three of them as its president. I stayed out of union negotiations for the most part. Why? For much of my tenure I am the son of one of the members of the bargaining unit in Round Lake, the Education Association of Round Lake (EARL), a local of the Illinois Education Association (IEA) the biggest teacher’s union in Illinois.

Without going into a whole lot of detail into that experience (that would be a very long post) suffice it to say I have participated in collective bargaining negotiations, grievances, stayed up until the wee hours of the morning negotiating with the association and fielding hundreds of phone calls related to union matters. I’m not a lawyer but I consider myself well experienced in this area and familiar with the process.

I respect the core tenets of unions and what they stand for — protecting the rights of workers and ensuring that everyone receives fair treatment.  The problem is when you deal with things as a collective you soon run into difficulty dealing with the individual and on more levels than one.

Governor Walker has a budget deficit looming and his state spends a lot of money on two things in particular — public employees and entitlements (Medicaid, welfare, social programs).  Wisconsin is not different from any other state in this regard. Most of what the state spends on education does not go directly into education – it goes to the local school districts in the form of state aid. School districts receive federal money (usually for special programs for at risk students), state money (general state aid and categorical grants – money earmarked for specific programs if the district complies) and local money (property taxes).

If you broke down the figures most districts receive little to no federal money, it mainly goes to poorer districts or districts with a large population of kids with special needs. All of them though rely on state and local money . The biggest expenditure the local school district makes? Overwhelmingly (to the tune of 70-85% in many cases) salary and benefits for its employees, mostly teachers. So, this is how the different levels work and how it is broken.

Governor Walker wants to balance his budget, he needs to cut spending by a billion from somewhere. For the purposes of this exercise let’s say he wants to take it all in education. Does Governor Walker now go to the state teachers unions (most states have two) and get their approval? He could, but it would be as meaningless as any state union assurance now they will take the deal on reduced benefits. They don’t negotiate the contracts, the local teachers unions do!

So Governor Walker puts together a plan and tells the state Board of Education to reduce spending by $1 bil. The state board comes up with the formula in elimination of categoricals (very common here in Illinois) and then reduction in general state aid.  Or, maybe a state aid payment or two, or four gets skipped.  Now imagine you are the local school district — your boss came to you and said that work you did last week on that special project?  Sorry, not paying for it, it was very nice work but we have to cut expenses. Also, “I need to dip into your pay a bit, I’m not going to pay you this week, I might pay you again in two weeks but I’m not sure yet, I’ll let you know.” That’s reality here in Illinois and I doubt it’s much different in Wisconsin.

What would you do? You would cut back your expenses right? Well imagine for a moment if you went to cut your biggest expense then, let’s say it’s your mortgage. Do you think you could get a reduction in your mortgage? Maybe eliminate some of the things you built into the loan or you could sell your house and live in a smaller one though, right? Maybe sell and rent a smaller place? Not if you’re a school district. No, see you collectively bargained a contract with these folks a year or so ago and not only can you not do anything to change that you said you were going to give them a raise next year and they want it. They are also going to enforce the class size provision that we bargained for. Some locals will see the district is in trouble and negotiate, this has been happening in Illinois and to the credit of those locals, others won’t. It’s up to the local to decide how they wish to balance reduced benefits for their members versus loss of members in the form of layoffs.

So what is left for the local school district to do? Cut administrators and lay off the teachers you can. Maybe the union will bargain with you on how many of its members it will let go without too much of a fuss. Only bad teachers would be let go right? Nope, can’t do that, because a union is about seniority.  No, you can’t lay off Mrs. Smith who has been mailing it in for the past decade trying to get enough years in to retire early. You need to lay off Mrs. Jones who is a new and enthusiastic teacher getting great results in her classroom. She’s only been here two years though and doesn’t have the protection of tenure.

This, my friends, is a glimpse into how things are done year after year in a school district. It doesn’t make unions all bad – it makes them misguided by tradition. It doesn’t make all school districts right, many of them planned recklessly. At the end of the day though the money comes from somewhere, not a magic tree or pot of gold over the rainbow. The taxpayers have been taking a haircut for the past few years and it’s coming time for the public employees’ turn in the chair.

The system is unsustainable as it is constituted so call me a little crazy for secretly hoping Wisconsin will become a disaster. A little revolution every now and then is good, no?  Maybe then we can talk about what the real problem is.