We’re entering uncharted territory when it comes to school issues statewide. I think it was clear from pretty far back that Gov. Scott Walker and Republican leaders in the Legislature were going to push for state employees and for teachers across the state (who are not state employees, but the state can influence their job situations) to pay significant shares of their health insurance and pension payments. But I was caught off guard by the move to take away almost all the unions’ bargaining role, as Walker proposed last week.
This is going to be a tumultuous and momentous spring and summer when it comes to education issues statewide. I wonder what all will be different when it comes time to open schools in September.
Permit me to venture into one aspect of what lies ahead that I specifically wonder about:
Walker proposed that public employees pay 5.8% of their salaries toward their pensions and 12% of the cost of their health insurance coverage. While I wonder how that’s going to play out across the state, I especially wonder how it will play out in Milwaukee Public Schools.
Why? Because MPS management and the Milwaukee teachers’ union agreed last fall to a very unusual four-year contract, retroactive to July 2009 and going through June 2013. In other words, MPS teachers have a contract for the next two school years that includes no payments toward their pension costs and payment of either 1% or 2% of health insurance, depending on whether an employee has a single or family plan.
So what happens if the state, as seems likely, sets the annual cap on spending for general school purposes factoring in higher pension and health insurance payments? And sets the formula for state aid for schools based on schools spending less than originally forecast on benefits? Other school districts have contracts that expire in June. They at least have new contracts to work on for 2011-13 that can be based on these factors. Will MPS be faced with dealing with aid and revenue caps based on Walker’s thinking, but commitments to teachers for the next two years based on decidedly more generous benefit support by the government?
If so, the squeeze on teachers in terms of job cuts might be worse in MPS than in other school systems – and it’s already shaping up as bad. Just how bad are cuts going to be in MPS and what will they mean in terms of what is offered in schools? Class sizes? School closings?
Will MPS union leaders, already in a surly mood due to what is happening, be willing to re-open the contracts due to the changed financial picture and in order to save jobs? History would suggest that is unlikely at best, but these are sharply different times.
All this is assuming that the Legislature will support something at least close to what Walker proposed, which seems likely. There will be a host of ways these dramatic changes will play-out. But keeping an eye specifically on what happens within MPS will be especially notable.