Madison school board uses tools of Act 10 to push education reform

By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — With Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10 for leverage, the Madison School Board will now be able to hire teachers for new openings at any time from outside the school district.

Madison Teachers Inc. agreed to a contract Wednesday that backed down from its longstanding insistence the district consider only internal candidates until openings couldn’t be filled.

“What we’re trying to do is see what we can do to raise achievement for all kids in the Madison school district,” said James Howard, vice president of the school board. “We want to make sure we have the ability to hire the best possible candidates.”

In the past, the district had the ability to hire teachers from outside the district and could offer bonuses of up to $5,000. The internal hiring requirement, however, often meant that by the late summer when the district was allowed to look elsewhere the best outside candidates were working for other districts.

Madison school board vice president James Howard said the district’s new hiring rules will improve student achievement.

“We need to be able to say we hired the most qualified person for the job,” Howard said.

John Matthews, executive director of Madison Teachers Inc., said the union agreed to the concession for the sake of signing a collective bargaining agreement for 2015-2016 as soon as possible.

The union had hoped to lock in a contract before an MTI challenge to Walker’s Act 10 collective bargaining law reforms is decided by the state Supreme Court in June.

“It certainly was not tasteful,” he said. “Some of our members were pretty upset about it.”

Matthews said he told union members they’d still have an inside track at job openings because their years worked in the district and connection with management and the community trump recommendation letters for outside candidates.

But before Act 10, this concession wouldn’t have been made, Matthews told Wisconsin Reporter.

“It’s like taking a walk in January versus taking a walk in July,” Matthews said. “If we ran into what we ran into this year (in the past), there would have been job actions and work stoppage.”

School districts across the country are beginning to win these concessions because of school accountability and competition from non-union charter and private voucher schools, said Terry Moe, a political scientist at Stanford University.

“These are common sense moves that any reasonable person looking at the situation would say it makes perfect sense,” Moe told Wisconsin Reporter. “But collective bargaining agreements are filled with rules that prohibit things like this.”

Moe addressed this impact of collective bargaining in a 2011 paper where he wrote the seniority-based teacher transfers “go right to the heart of school organization.”

“Teachers are the education system’s single most important resource, and if the schools are to be effectively organized, it is imperative that teachers be allocated to their most productive uses,” he wrote.

Madison Metropolitan School District is one of just a handful of government employers in the state that still engage in monopoly bargaining with unions beyond the scope of the law. They can do this until the state Supreme Court sorts out Act 10.

Several state and federal courts have already upheld the law in its entirety.

Still, the board has wielded the power of Act 10 as Walker envisioned, even as they defy implementation of the law.

“We freed school districts from the stranglehold of collective bargaining rules — allowing them, for example, to buy health insurance on the open market and hire and fire teachers based on merit for the first time,” Walker wrote in his 2013 book “Unintimidated.”

It was a charge he often repeated on the campaign trail in 2012.

Tom O’Toole, superintendent of the Clintonville school district, said the law has helped the district keep the educational needs of students front and center through broadened teacher hiring policies.

“Now we’re able to make transfers based on our educational needs, not years of service or other restrictions in the contract,” O’Toole said. “It freed us up to make decisions based on what’s educationally best for our students, and that’s a good thing.”

The outside hiring concession, the 0.25 percent pay increase for teachers and Act 10 in general have been bitter pills for the union, which brought the lawsuit that made its way to the Supreme Court.

Bargaining for contracts since Act 10 has been unpleasant, Matthews said.

“Frankly they came in like the school yard bully,” he said. “They were kicking the crap out of us saying, ‘if you want a contract this goes, this goes, this goes.’ We weren’t in a position to say screw you. We lost things that would have been a strike issue (before Act 10.)”

Contact Ryan Ekvall at rekvall@watchdog.org, 608-257-1382 or on Twitter @Nockian.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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