Mary Burke’s position as a member of the Madison Metropolitan School District board has played a minimal role in the governor’s race so far.
Gov. Scott Walker tried to change that Sept. 3, 2014, calling on Burke and the board to find savings by using his signature Act 10, which dramatically curtailed collective bargaining for most public employees, including those of the district.
In a campaign news release, Walker said Madison "will be the only school district left in the state out of 424 to ignore the law and not take advantage of Governor Walker’s reforms into the 2015-16 school year."
Walker was playing off the fact the Madison board in 2014 signed a far-reaching contract with its teachers union despite the fact that Act 10 only allows for limited negotiations on base wages.
Burke, who opposed Act 10 and who supported negotiating with school district employees, countered that the Madison district is being fiscally responsible, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
Is Madison the sole district in the state with such a contract for 2015-’16?
And does that mean the district is ignoring Act 10?
To back the claim, the Walker campaign pointed us to a Madison Teachers Inc. flier on contract negotiations that said only seven of the state’s public school districts "have contracts for the current school year, and MTI is the only union to have contracts for 2014-15, and now, upon ratification, for 2015-16."
In our research, we were told by multiple officials there is no central repository for school contracts, so definitive proof of Madison’s singular status is lacking.
But the Madison teachers union flier is very likely correct, based on our interviews with experts on both sides of this issue.
And it makes sense. Act 10 took effect in 2011, and existing labor contracts remained in effect, but most of those have long since expired.
Madison’s teachers, however, challenged Act 10 in court and in 2012 won an initial round before a Dane County judge, which opened a window in which technically they were not covered by the provisions of the new law, noted James Scott, chairman of Walker’s Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission.
The state Supreme Court later upheld the law, in July 2014.
During that interim period, the union negotiated a contract with the Madison district that went beyond just base wage changes.
The Wisconsin Education Association Council, an umbrella group representing most local teachers unions in Wisconsin, has heard of no other local affiliates with collective-bargaining agreements for 2015-’16, said spokeswoman Christina Brey.
AFT-Wisconsin represents some other local unions at school districts. Likewise, it has no locals under collective bargaining agreements for 2015-’16, said Kim Kohlhaas, president of the group.
And an official with the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators told us he believes Madison is "the only district that will continue under what would be described as a pre-Act 10 contractual agreement."
"In Madison’s case, they continue to adhere to a contract that was bargained with the union prior to Act 10 and that does include all items that were the subjects of that earlier bargain," said Jon Bales, executive director of the administrators group. "Thus, all conditions such as working conditions, transfers, evaluations, etc. – anything that they had negotiated in the past as a part of the contract."
So Walker appears to be on firm ground in singling out Madison.
Debating the law’s effect
But what of his characterization that Madison is ignoring the law? That is, that the district is not taking advantage of the measure’s ability to save costs through unilateral changes in benefits and working conditions.
If Walker means the district is disobeying the law, that’s a matter of dispute that has yet to be settled in court.
If he means the district is not applying it, there’s some evidence both ways.
Madison district officials and Madison Teachers Inc. executive director John Matthews disagree with Walker’s characterization.
The union leader notes that employees accepted a 0.25% base-wage increase, well within Act 10, which limits increases to the inflation rate. It was a raise, he said, the district never could have sold to employees before Act 10.
And Matthews said the district got authority through Act 10 to change the employees’ health insurance carrier, though the district says ultimately that was done as part of bargaining.
Walker, meanwhile, has criticized the district for not using Act 10 to get teachers to contribute to their health insurance premiums, something his law allowed districts to do without bargaining. Madison teachers currently make no contribution to premiums.
Additionally, one of Act 10’s provisions was that districts adopt an employee "handbook" spelling out policies that had once been bargained. Madison has not yet done so, although like some other districts it will do so using the union contract as a basis for it.
Another provision of Act 10, new deductions from worker paychecks toward pensions, went into effect automatically statewide.
The Madison district counters that it has found cost savings by working collaboratively with employees. It believes it was on solid legal ground in negotiating contracts, said Rachel Strauch-Nelson, spokeswoman for the Madison district.
One final note: The 2015-’16 year is a ways off, and it’s possible another district could sign a pre-Act 10-style contract before then. Such a move could or would subject a district to legal challenge.
Walker said Mary Burke’s Madison school district "will be the only school district left in the state" to "ignore the (Act 10) law" in the 2015-16 school year.
Due to some legal circumstances, Madison stands alone right now with a 2015-’16 contract that has pre-Act 10 elements. The law has affected some elements of district policies nonetheless.
We rate Walker’s claim Mostly True.