Patti Wenzel
Op Ed

MTEA is missing an opportunity

By - Aug 1st, 2011 04:00 am
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I feel sorry for the children attending Milwaukee Public Schools.  They’re the ones who will have bigger classrooms, fewer teachers and nurses and less access to arts and physical education due to the recent decision by the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association to not discuss pension concessions with the school board.

I feel sorry for the young teachers, many with three years or less seniority in the district, hurt by that same decision.

And I feel sorry for our community. Once again, educating our children is losing the war as a battle of ideology and politics rages.

An internal survey of MTEA members, released last week, showed that 52.4 percent did not want to discuss a possible 5.8 percent contribution toward their pension benefits, following the minimum guideline adopted in the 2011 Budget Repair Bill. Legally, MTEA members do not have to abide by the guideline for awhile yet; the district approved a new 3-year contract before it passed.

According to MPS Board President Michael Bonds, the pension contributions would allow MPS to recall 198 of the 354 teachers laid off in June – including 27 arts and music teachers – along with 22 school nurses, a nursing supervisor.  Of those 198 recalled teachers, 51 would be SAGE program teachers, which allow low-income districts to hold classroom sizes to 18 students in kindergarten through 3rd Grade.

The survey came on the heels of a request by MPS to sit down and discuss pension contributions in an effort to save those positions. It also followed an emotional meeting of recently laid-off MTEA members, where instead of listening to union officials share information on unemployment as scheduled, the members begged the union to get their jobs back.

Unfortunately, MTEA President Bob Peterson has adopted the thinking of both mainstream American political parties – that any vote over 50 percent is a mandate. No concern for the 47.5 percent of members who wanted to discuss options with the school board, or the students and quality of education in Milwaukee.

“We did not cut over $80 million from MPS,” Peterson said in a statement released with the survey results. “We did not create the unfair state funding system that has underfunded MPS for decades. What we did do was to save the district tens of millions of dollars in the next two years through our concessionary contract negotiated last fall.”

That contract included a pay freeze for the 2009-10 school year with pay increases in the remaining three years and a 1- or 2-percent contribution from base salary for health insurance. There is no requirement in the contract for employee contributions toward either of the two pension plans provided to MTEA members.

Teachers from Alcott Elementary School stand in solidarity to cuts that will eliminate four teachers from their ranks.

This issue baffles me in so many ways. In 2010, teachers marched on the district offices in solidarity with their peers who were laid off in response to Gov. Jim Doyle’s $300 million education cuts. This year, when the union had an opportunity to do something to save the jobs of their fellow members, it looks like greed has taken over.

MPS teacher Ingrid Henry told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that MTEA members made concessions last December and that was enough.

“I’m a firm believer in you get what you pay for,” she said. “I made the decision to send a message that this is a profession that requires hard work and dedication.”

And for 52.4 percent of the teachers, it sounds like that message is “I’ve got mine.”

And what happened to the oft-heard chant in Madison earlier this year by teachers from across the state? The one where they said they would make the concession payments?  Granted, it was a qualified chant, concessions in return for Walker and the Legislature taking the collective bargaining limits off the table. But it did make the unions look good at the time, and provided hope that there could be some compromise in these messed-up fiscal times.

But no, at least not in Milwaukee. Peterson won’t have any of that, firm in the belief that MTEA members have given enough and they’re not budging.

Capitol rally. Photo by Patti Wenzel

I’m not thrilled with the ham-handed way Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-led legislature handled the collective bargaining issue. I wasn’t surprised it happened, even if Walker never said the exact words during his campaign. All you had to do was watch his tenure as Milwaukee County Executive to know that he would do anything to tie the hands of public unions.

And I’m not a fan of cuts to public education. I’ve seen the devastation revenue caps and funding cuts have had on MPS, as well as suburban and rural districts across the state. Teachers laid off, programs cut, schools closed, districts forced to consolidate to save money and provide the bare minimum requirements.

But that’s all water under the bridge, I suppose. The bill passed, and even if the Democrats take control of the Senate this month, the funding cuts and collective bargaining limits won’t go away until they control both houses and the governor’s office.

Until then, we all have to work with what we have, and what we have is less money for public schools and word from almost half the MPS educators that they are willing to give some more to remain in the classroom.

Mr. Peterson, how does winning the battle help if you lose the war? When does making a point become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Bob Peterson

MTEA President Bob Peterson rallies his members. Photo courtesy Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association.

Go ahead MTEA, refuse to save the careers of some members now. Here’s what you will have in a few years: a district decimated by Baby Boomer retirements with no one willing to teach in a district with a demonstrated lack of cooperation between teachers and administration.

Go ahead MTEA, increase the size of classrooms. Then throw up your hands and say it wasn’t your fault as more students fall behind, leave school and take their lack of literacy and job skills into a world that demands them.

Blame everyone else.  Blame Scott Walker for cutting state aid. Blame Barack Obama for having stimulus funds expire at the end of the last budget year. Blame the parents who have taken advantage of school choice and found an educational system that works for them. But don’t take any blame for those lost teachers or lost children.

You’ve made your point.

Categories: Commentary, Politics

0 thoughts on “Op Ed: MTEA is missing an opportunity”

  1. Anonymous says:

    In a year of absolute upheaval in our state this is just one more battle line in a state where figurative barricades have ben erected on many issues in many communities.
    Teacher’s salaries and benefits have been defined by their union as fair compensation for many years. the use of such rhetoric as benefits that are “fought for and won” indicate the fractionalization and advisorial atmosphere in which compensation and work rules are discussed. Every negotiation is scored like a game and each outcome has winners and losers.
    Some will say it’s the American way and it’s never going to change. I say, we’ve had the same people at the table discussing the same tired issues for over thirty years. We have to get new people and talk about the real issue. The real issue is, we aren’t educating our kids to live and work in the modern world.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I hope more people see that this was set up to happen by Gov. Walker. His goal from the beginning was to destroy the union. He admitted before congress under oath that his union busting bill was not about saving money. Walker hopes to defund this political opposition. He wants to vilify teachers and if you read some comment boards you’ll see it is working.

  3. Anonymous says:

    As a teacher on the north side of Milwaukee for the last 9 years, I have changed kids lives through coaching, volunteering, and putting 100% of my heart into my job, alongside many of my fellow teachers and aides in Milwaukee. But this summer I talked with a person over lunch who told me how North High School was when he was teaching there. He had the exact same crazy, horror stories of violence, low scores, and general negativity that most every teacher in Milwaukee sees year in and year out. I asked him when he taught, he said, “Oh, late 1950’s, early 60’s.” I was stunned. In my opinion, Milwaukee has not been failing for 30 years, it has been failing for at least more than 50. Kids will not get adequate education in classes of 40. And even if they did have the highest scores in the U.S. would there be jobs in Wisconsin for them? In Milwaukee? Ask the graduates coming out of UWM and Marquette right now how having the highest scores helping them? Do the students in MPS right now have parent role models with jobs that they can look up to and be proud of? I will keep working my tail off for the children. I just hope in 50 more years, the stories won’t be the same.

    Patti, I have respectful question for you. I would love to see a write up of it from you. Can you tell me what your vision of “the modern world” is for Americans?

    I have one last quick opinion about the modern world and that is the more I see outsourcing of everything in the U.S. from computer code, to retail products, to food, etc.. our students are not competing just with other people from Milwaukee for jobs, they are competing with everyone else around the world. People with the same education or higher than our own that will work for pennies on the dollar. Again so curious to know what you think the modern world will be for MPS students?

  4. Anonymous says:

    I am Ingrid Henry, and I would like you to see my whole letter before you decide to take my words and use them any way you want. After that I guess you can be my guest.

    As with many things this year, the survey on concessions was another hard choice. On one hand the students in MPS would suffer with larger class sizes and less materials. To be honest that has been a growing problem anyway with the funding of public education (that topic is for another day). Teachers would suffer either through position shuffling, and more tragically loss of jobs. It’s not a decision one makes without much deliberation.

    I repeat again it was a hard choice. Should we vote for more concessions when it seems that the public has made teachers out to be villains? According to some of the comments on the Journal Sentinel website we’re just in line for easy handouts anyway. Would it make us look better to a public that doesn’t really understand what goes into being a good teacher in a challenging, but rewarding urban area? Did we even get “credit” for negotiating a contract that saved the district $84 million over the next 2 years?

    I made the decision not to vote for concessions. We made concessions 9 months ago. I know that when the contract is up in two years we will be asked to make more. Sooner or later the profession of teaching will be relegated to people with minimal education (see Governor Walker’s proposal to allow people to teach without degrees in education). Students will be seen as dollar bills and the quality of public (as well as private) education will suffer. I am a firm believer in you get what you pay for. I made the decision to send the message that this is a profession that requires hard work and dedication. In order to attract and retain quality teachers you will need to pay them. Quality teachers are what is needed to advance the state of Wisconsin. The continued attack on teachers will cause the profession to suffer. The cuts made to public education are an attack on children and the future and that is why I say “No!”

    Ingrid Henry

  5. Anonymous says:

    BTW- You forgot to mention the concessions already made by the teachers union. Perhaps if Walker would have maintained funding levels, or cut them by $100 not the $300-$500 that has been quoted then teachers across the state wold not be in this situation.
    Better yet let’s look at the broken school funding system.

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