District administrators in Wisconsin would appreciate greater management leeway in negotiations with teachers' unions, but many say the collective bargaining restrictions crafted by Gov. Scott Walker and the republican-controlled legislature go too far. On March 9, the GOP senators of Wisconsin abruptly passed a stripped down version of the budget repair bill. The financial proposals were eliminated, although they kept the language ending many of the collective bargaining rights for public sector employees.
"I don't think anyone's caught their breath," said Bradford Saron, superintendent of Cashton (Wisc.) Public Schools, as the standoff in Madison continued in early March and other states—like Ohio, Indiana and Tennessee—had similar bills in the works. In a property-poor, rural district like Cashton, collective bargaining has helped keep unions and management on the "same team," Saron said.
A Collaborative Relationship
The Madison Metropolitan School District would like to have seen the governor and legislature work through the budget issues without making such significant changes to labor rights, says Daniel Nerad, superintendent.
"We've advocated for some changes in the bargaining rights, but at the same time, it is a process that we have found a way to handle for the most part productively in our district," he said. The Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB) expressed similar sentiments in a Feb. 15 letter from John H. Ashley, executive director, to state Sen. Alberta Darling and state Rep. Robin Vos, who co-chair the legislature's joint committee on finance. In the letter, Ashley wrote the bill "would immeasurably harm the collaborative relationships that exist between school boards and teachers and may lead to job actions and other disruptions of educational services."
WASB had a short list of items that it did want prohibited as potential subjects of bargaining, including preparation time, naming of the health insurance carrier, contracting out school services, and days and dates of the school year.
Miles Turner, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators (WASDA), says his members would like easier routes toward dismissal of teachers as well as greater flexibility in areas such as the length of the school year. But WasDa has not sought changes such as removal of health and pension benefits from collective bargaining, annual certification of unions, or direct collection of dues, says Turner.
Finding a Balance
Although he could not speak for all of WASDA's members individually, Turner believes most are concerned about the effects of such a change on their districts. "I would think the vast majority would understand that the removal of all bargaining rights opens up a new and potentially problematic work environment," he says. "A collective bargaining agreement, if the power is balanced, establishes a system that all parties can work within."
Not all administrators agree. "I would say collective bargaining is an extraordinarily time-consuming process," says Conrad Farner, superintendent in the School District of Greenfield (Wis.). But Farner is concerned that the added flexibility will be meaningless if inadequate funding ties their hands. "You can't cut every public education employee down to $30,000 with no benefits."