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When schools reported a 1 percent drop in property taxes collected statewide, Gov. Scott Walker hailed the news as evidence his revenue freeze had worked.
But the state’s largest teachers union groaned, saying state aid cuts and the freeze were harming schools.
"Through a devastating state budget that cut $1.6 billion from Wisconsin public schools while at the same time tying the hands of local school boards from raising revenue to meet the needs of students, the governor has delivered a one-two punch to our schools," Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, said in a news release.
The release added: "FACT: 97 percent of school districts received less state aid this year than last, resulting in nearly 4,000 educator layoffs and larger class sizes."
We previously checked the $1.6 billion claim and found an element of truth, but that $800 million to $900 million is the better number for education aid cuts under Walker. We rated that claim Mostly False.
But with education a key battleground in the recall drive against Walker, what about the union’s claim of "nearly 4,000 educator layoffs"?
The claim was a bit surprising: In that same news release and in a previous statement by Bell, the union has presented the 4,000 figure in a more general way, without blaming it all on layoffs -- "4,000 fewer educators" on the job.
The source of the number caught our attention as well.
The union attributed it number to a widely reported survey of schools, released Nov. 10, 2011. But that survey -- of more than 80 percent of school districts -- showed about 3,400 fewer school staff in place now compared to last year.
Union spokeswoman Christina Brey told us characterizing all the staff losses as "layoffs" was defensible. She said it was a general term, including reductions due to retirements and non-renewal of contracts as well as layoffs.
She also said the "nearly 4,000" figure came from WEAC’s estimates of what a 100 percent survey response would have showed, and from a separate state Department of Workforce Development report on public-sector job losses.
Is the union right?
The state Department of Workforce Development report prompted state officials to estimate a 4,000 worker drop in the local school workforce. But that’s not all "educators." It "could range from teachers and administrators to support staff and janitors," the Capital Times reported.
The figure is an estimate based on the widely reported state job figures, but state officials do not get into layoffs or the other reasons for the drop.
Separately, the survey by the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators showed a total of 9,000 fewer jobs -- partially offset by 5,600 new hires. That’s the 3,400 net job loss. Again, it would include support staff and non-teaching positions.
Of those 9,000, we found about 1,500 -- a bit more than 15 percent -- were from actual layoffs. About half were from retirements and about one third from non-renewal of contracts.
So the union claim is off.
"I can see where your question comes from, but to the general public, little distinction is made between the underlying causes behind whether or not something is a layoff, a retirement generated by a threat of layoff, a non-renewal, and so forth," Brey told us.
To be sure, some local school officials we talked to told us some of the retirees would have been laid off if they had not retired.
But there are problems with that line of thought.
Retirements did surge after the state budget made it easy for schools to impose higher pension and health costs and make changes in work rules for teachers. But there are significant numbers of retirements every year, so blaming the budget cuts alone for pushing them out overreaches.
The same holds for dismissal of educators for poor performance; there’s a baseline level of those every year.
As for the union’s notion the 4,000 is on target if you simply apply the pattern of the 80 percent of districts who responded to all districts, that is mathematically correct. It’s a "reasonable layman’s approach," said Nancy Mathiowetz, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee statistics expert.
But to draw a precise conclusion as the union did would require study of why some districts didn’t respond, according to Mathiowetz and Marquette University survey research expert Robert Griffin. Griffin said he would use extreme caution before making the leap to 4,000.
So, the 4,000 figure is debatable even if you accept the union’s logic.
WEAC, the state’s largest teachers union, calls the school staffing losses layoffs, putting the number at 4,000.
That shorthand is very misleading given that layoffs were only a fraction of the job losses. Even if you grant that a significant number of retirements were a form of indirect layoff, it’s inaccurate to lump all the departing staffers under that banner.
We rate the union’s claim False.
Wisconsin Education Association Council, news release, Nov. 15, 2011
The Capital Times, "School cuts were big piece of job losses," Oct. 28, 2011
Emails from Christina Brey, WEAC media relations officer, Nov. 15-16, 2011
Interview with Professor Robert Griffin, Marquette University, Center for Mass Media Research, Nov. 22, 2011
Interview with Nancy Mathiowetz, UW-Milwaukee sociology professor, Nov. 22, 2011
Interview with Miles Turner, executive director, Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, Nov. 21, 2011
Interview with John Dipko, spokesperson, Department of Workforce Development, Nov. 18, 2011
Interview with Shawn Smith, spokesperson, Wisconsin Department of Employee Trust Funds, Nov. 18, 2011
Interview with Nelse Grundvig, Labor Market Information section director, Department of Workforce Development, Nov. 21, 2011
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "School levies drop statewide, sparking debate," Nov. 15, 2011
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