How one local school district is surviving
Gov. Scott Walker’s collective bargaining bill (WI Act 10) and biennial budget cut school funding by almost $635 per student statewide and imposed minimum contributions to pensions and health insurance premiums by public employees. Those employees included public school teachers and staff who were not under contracts as of June 1.
The move caused months of protests – first in Madison while the bills were debated and adopted and then in individual districts as school boards adopted handbooks and operational rules for non-contracted employees. Greenfield and New Berlin had mini-riots as district teachers and educators from other districts, most notably Milwaukee, converged to demand a seat at the table, now denied by legislation.
And Milwaukee Public Schools is currently under a contract with its teachers and support staff that doesn’t allow them to impose the “tools” to save money and jobs. Instead, hundreds of MPS teachers were laid off when the union refused to voluntarily make additional pension and insurance contributions.
But one district in Milwaukee County has quietly moved on without teacher protests, layoffs, curriculum cuts or loss of extracurricular clubs or sports: West Allis/West Milwaukee.
“Trimming” $9.5 million
WA/WM School Board President Susan Stalewski said the district faced an unanticipated $9.5 million shortfall as a result of Act 10 and the 2011-13 state budget. The timing was right for the district, as the teachers and teaching assistant contracts expired in June.
“We were able to receive the concessions on pensions and health insurance required by the budget,” she said. “We saved $6.5 million from the union, which is now contributing 12.6 percent to their health premiums and 5.8 toward their WRS (Wisconsin Retirement System) contribution.”
The district was also able to renegotiate the health insurance plan they had with the WEA Trust, moving to a tiered plan that allows the teachers to choose the amount of coverage they desire and save the district by reducing premium costs.
The district benefited from attrition, lowering salary costs by replacing retiring teachers with younger, less expensive educators. Stalewski said that doesn’t reflect on the quality of teaching in the district, even though veteran teachers are leaving. She asserted that younger teachers often have new ideas and methods that are just as or more effective in today’s classrooms as the teachers they have replaced.
A recent scuttlebutt regarding retired teachers giving notice, then returning to the classroom at their most recent pay rate while drawing retirement benefits, has not touched the West Allis/West Milwaukee district. A review of district board minutes show a few retired educators working for the district as substitutes at the standard pay rate, or serving as consultants on limited time assignments or as athletic coaches.
“That is nothing unusual,” Stalewski said, referring to the actions of the retired teachers. “It happens in many districts and in the university system, but I”ve never seen anything like we’re seeing in Green Bay or other local districts.”
Another measure the district took to cut costs was to eliminate step pay increases, but give an across the board one percent cost of living increase to the staff, with a slightly larger raise to the newer hires to make up for the lower starting wage differential.
Cooperation on work rules
New Berlin educators howled at the idea of a longer day for the same pay, drawing regional attention from local television cameras.
West Allis, on the other hand, had negotiated eight-hour work days, student collaborative time and fewer vacation and sick days years before.
“We have been effectively budgeting our district for many years and got those types of work rules in the contracts before they expired,” Stalewski said. “We had traded those things for a more generous retirement package in the past, so we didn’t have to make any drastic changes with our handbook.”
As for dress code requirements for teachers, Stalewski said WA/WM has one for its staff, but it is not as specific on skirt length and whether someone is wearing a tie.
The district also increased revenues for the 2011-12 school year by increasing the percentage of open enrollment students. However, Stalewski said the district did not actively recruit students from to fill a predetermined hole in the budget.
West Allis/West Milwaukee gets approximately 10 percent of its enrollment from open enrollees, mainly from MPS. The majority of those students come from the far southwest side of Milwaukee – south of Oklahoma Ave and west of 84th Street – or from the far west side of Milwaukee which used to be served by Juneau High School. There are few MPS schools in those areas and WA/WM schools are often closer to student homes than the assigned MPS school.
The district has also seen an increase in enrollment in 4K classes. Previously, the district offered the program in a handful of schools; now it has expanded 4K classes to all eleven elementary schools, with over 500 enrolled. WA/WM was fortunate enough to receive enough funding to add the program and also expand SAGE classrooms to all the schools.
“It is something that is very attractive to our parents,” Stalewski said. “We are going to monitor the 4K program to see if students continue in our schools after enrolling in 4K, or if parents are simply using this a free daycare. But the SAGE program has drawn students to the district.”
“Minor” service cuts
The district did make some cuts in service this school year, but Stalewski said they were more for school population issues and more efficient program delivery.
The most noticable cut was the elimination of bus service to Nathan Hale High School on 116th and Lincoln Ave. for students living in the West Milwaukee service area. WA/WM allows its students to attend any school in the district, abandoning mandatory attendance at specific neighborhood schools years ago. However, the Hale student population has grown, dwarfing the population of the district’s other high school, Central. A concerted effort is being made by the school board to close the population gap between the two schools and change the perception of Central as a “problem campus.”
By dropping the Hale bus service, the district saved money and passively forced families to consider West Allis Central as an alternative. Both schools offer the same curriculum, with many students taking classes at both to fill schedules, but Central has a much larger minority population, which unfortunately has clouded the perceptions of some parents.
The other programming change seen in the WA/WM district has been an overhaul of the grade school band program. None of the elementary schools in the district has enough participation to field a full band, so the district will employ instrumental teachers part-time to provide lessons to students wishing to learn a band instrument instead of employing a full-time music teacher with benefits.
Stalewski is proud of how the teachers and board handled the loss of state funding – through cooperation and smart fiscal management – but she is unsure about the future.
“We’ll receive a small savings when the AFSCME 80 union’s contract runs out and they start contributing towards their pensions and health coverage, but that is only a few janitors and secretaries,” she said. “Plus we have $2 million in Federal jobs money that we put aside for special education and literacy programs that will be available next year, but if the funding formula doesn’t change I’m not sure what will happen.”
Stalewski explained the WA/WM district is seeing student population growth, which allows the board to increase its levy on residents, but she knows that is not a popular position to take. However, if the district doesn’t levy to the full amount allowed under the funding formula, the state penalizes the district the next year, using the lower levy as the baseline for future increases.
“Plus, I do get phone calls from people who say they’re willing to pay an extra $20 a year to ensure a good education for our students, and also the calls from people who think we’re still wasting money or all corrupt,” she said. “I ask them what they would cut, where they would trim? I never get a reasonable answer that won’t hurt our kids.”
In the interest of full disclosure, one of my sons graduated from West Allis Central and my daughter is a member of the 2012 Class at Central.