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West Allis teachers make a deal that hurts

They agree to concession that's part of deep budget cuts in district

May 24, 2011

West Allis - Benefit changes that translate to pay cuts of 11 to 14 percent could be in the future of West Allis-West Milwaukee employees and administrators.

The concessions are tied to a not-yet-final state budget that would reduce school aid and impose revenue caps on districts. Bracing for a possible 2011-12 district budget deficit of $9.5 million, the School Board and teachers union simultaneously on Monday approved several measures, mostly benefit changes, to fill in that hole.

Because 85 percent of the schools' operating budget is pay and benefits, 62 percent of the burden of making up that deficit would fall on employees.

Avoiding massive layoff

The alternative was laying off of more than 200 teachers. The vote among the 675 teachers in the West Allis-West Milwaukee Teachers Association was overwhelmingly for the benefit changes, said Chad Lehman, head negotiator for the teachers.

"It's not something that we thought was a great deal - we were choosing between bad and worse," Lehman said.

Massive teacher layoffs would not only be bad for teachers, but would undoubtedly create larger class sizes, which is bad for kids by overloading the teachers who are left, he said.

Acting despite uncertainties

The agreement with teachers was expressed in a memorandum of understanding that acknowledged early state budget proposals that painted a dire financial picture for the district.

Even though no one yet knows if all the state measures will eventually come about, Lehman said, "We need to do what we can to keep things rolling in a positive direction."

That approximates the view of Superintendent of Schools Kurt Wachholz. As distasteful as the changes are, "the memorandum of understanding provides our school district with the opportunity to move forward in a very critical time," he said.

Starting next school year, the benefit changes would affect all employees, except for maintenance and clerical employees, who have a contract that does not expire until June 2012.

Resulting financial gains

Employees will pay half of the premiums to the Wisconsin Retirement System. Currently the district pays 100 percent. That will bring in $2.5 million, said Deb Rouse, director of business services.

They also will pay 10 percent of health insurance premiums. That will bring another $1.4 million, Rouse said. Maintenance and clerical staff already pay 6 percent under their contract.

School officials also hope to save $2 million by changing the employee insurance plan by having higher deductibles and co-pays. An insurance committee that includes teachers is working on a request for proposals that will be sent in the next week or two to insurance companies, Rouse said.

These benefit changes will total an estimated $5.9 million or 62 percent of the $9.5 million deficit.

Part of larger balancing act

Federal stimulus money saved from this year will boost the district $2 million closer to its goal. School officials held onto the $2 million of federal Education Jobs funding, just in case.

"We chose not to use it this year because we knew we would need it next year," Rouse said. "It was a good decision."

Two other smaller measures should save an additional $1.6 million total.

One is accepting 100 more nonresident students through the state Open Enrollment program. That should bring in an estimated $800,000 in per student Open Enrollment aid, Rouse said.

Currently, 923 Open Enrollment students attend West Allis-West Milwaukee Schools and make up about 10.2 percent of its total enrollment.

The extra 100 students would fill in classes where there is extra room, she said.

Another $800,000 will be saved as the district hires young teachers to replace retiring teachers. Retirees are normally at the top of the pay scale and the new teachers get more entry level pay, she said.

A tight budget

These changes are easily seen, but other adjustments to deal with smaller budget shortfalls in previous years have not been, Lehman said.

Teachers and administrators all have taken on more responsibilities, he said. But there is a limit to what can be done behind the scenes.

Parents are going to start protesting the way schools are funded, he predicted. Or all schools will be in trouble, he said.

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