Concessions Made in Advance of MTI Negotiations by a Majority of the Madison School Board

It will be interesting to see how voters on February 20 and April 3 view this decision by a majority of the Madison School Board: Should the Board and Administration continue to give away their ability to negotiate health care benefits ($43.5M of the 2006/2007 budge) before MTI union bargaining begins? Read the 2005 MMSD/MTI Voluntary Impasse Agreement [1.1MB PDF; see paragraph’s 2, 10 and 11]. The 2007 version, alluded to in Andy Hall’s article below, will be posted when it sees the light of day.
This is an important issue for all of us, given the MMSD’s challenge of balancing their growing $331M+ budget, while expenses – mostly salaries and benefits – continue to increase at a faster rate. Mix in the recent public disclosure of the district’s $5.9M 7 year structural deficit and I doubt that this is the best approach for our children.
Recently, the Sun Prairie School District and its teachers’ union successfully bargained with DeanCare to bring down future costs for employee health insurance.

Andy Hall, writing in the Wisconsin State Journal asks some useful questions:

But with the Madison School Board facing a $10.5 million budget shortfall, is the board giving away too much with its promises to retain teachers’ increasingly pricey health insurance and to discard its legal mechanism for limiting teachers’ total compensation increase to 3.8 percent?

Yes, School Board Vice President Lawrie Kobza said Saturday, “I feel very strongly that this was a mistake,” said Kobza, who acknowledged that most board members endorse the agreement with Madison Teachers Inc., the teachers union.

State law allows districts to avoid arbitration by making a so-called qualified economic offer, or QEO, by boosting salaries and benefits a combined 3.8 percenter a year.

“To agree before a negotiation starts that we’re not going to impose the QEO and negotiate health care weakens the district’s position,” Kobza said. She contended the district’s rising health-care costs are harming its ability to raise starting teachers’ salaries enough to remain competitive.

The “voluntary impasse resolution” agreements, which are public records, are used in only a handful of Wisconsin’s 425 school districts, according to the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission.

Four of the 7 current Madison School Board Members were backed by MTI during their campaigns (Arlene Silveira, Carol Carstensen, Shwaw Vang and Johnny Winston, Jr.). Those four votes can continue this practice. Independent School Board members Lawrie Kobza and Ruth Robarts have spoken publicly against the concessions made in advance of negotiations. If you support or oppose this approach, let the board know via email (, or phone.

Related links, media and transcripts:

  • What’s the MTI Political Endorsement about?:

    In 2006-07 the Madison School district will spend $43.5M on health insurance for its employees, the majority of the money paying for insurance for teachers represented by Madison Teachers, Inc. (MTI) That is 17% of the operating budget under the revenue limits.
    In June of 2007, the two-year contract between the district and MTI ends. The parties are now beginning negotiations for the 2007-09 contract.
    The Sun Prairie School district and its teachers union recently saved substantial dollars on health insurance. They used the savings to improve teacher wages. The parties joined together openly and publicly to produce a statement of the employees health needs. Then they negotiated a health insurance package with a local HMO that met their needs.

  • The MMSD Custodians recently agreed to a new health care plan where 85% of the cost savings went to salaries and 15% to the MMSD.
  • Ruth Robarts discussed concessions in advance of negotiations, health care costs and the upcoming elections with Vicki McKenna recently. [6.5MB MP3 Audio | Transcript]
  • What a Sham(e) by Jason Shephard:

    Last week, Madison Teachers Inc. announced it would not reopen contract negotiations following a hollow attempt to study health insurance alternatives.
    Not to put too fine a point on it, but anyone who suggests the Joint Committee on Health Insurance Issues conducted a fair or comprehensive review needs to get checked out by a doctor.
    The task force’s inaction is a victory for John Matthews, MTI’s executive director and board member Wisconsin Physicians Service.
    Losers include open government, school officials, taxpayers and young teachers in need of a raise.
    From its start, the task force, comprised of three members each from MTI and the district, seemed to dodge not only its mission but scrutiny.

Tuesday’s school board seat 3 primary election candidates commented on concessions in advance of negotiations (one of whom, Beth Moss is supported by Madison Teachers, Inc):

  • Pam Cross-Leone:

    “I really think that …taking the health care off the table and not even exploring ways of bringing some of those costs down is irresponsible,” said candidate Pam Cross-Leone, an employee in Madison Gas & Electric’s customer-service unit who said she handled similar issues in her former role as a union steward.

  • Beth Moss:

    The third candidate, Beth Moss, who has been endorsed by Madison Teachers Inc., the teachers union, said she wasn’t ready to form an opinion until she has had a chance to read the agreement.

  • Rick Thomas:

    Candidate Rick Thomas, a business consultant and former small-business owner, said he only learned of the agreement on Friday so he would need more details before forming a final opinion. But at first glance, he said, the pact appears to be a mistake because “obviously health care is a huge expense so it’s going to be something you have to negotiate.”

These decisions directly affect the viability of upcoming, necessary referendums.

18 thoughts on “Concessions Made in Advance of MTI Negotiations by a Majority of the Madison School Board”

  1. Just when it seems the majority of BoE members are finally acting in a professional manner, and placing the interests of the District, schools, students first, the idea that they may surprise us with the opposite by upfront failing to control health care costs is disconcerting at best.
    Avoiding divisive job actions is important, as Rainwater points out, but on the other hand, won’t it be nice to know what the character of our teachers really are and what the contract can and should be? So, some teachers will not write letters of reference, or be available before or after school, or attend PTO meetings.
    If we expect and want teachers to be available before and after school, then that should be part of the contract. If teachers can and should write reference letters, then make that part of the contract. If we believe those behaviors are important to our students’ success, then we shouldn’t be dependent on some teachers volunteering to do that — it should be required of all teachers, and enforceable within the language of the contract.
    Procedurally, in advance of the BoE elections, I’m uncomfortable that the majority of the Board can voluntarily tie the hands of MMSD negotiators. Giving away most critical pieces of the negotiation, I’m sure the rest of the negotiations will go quite smoothly, since MTI will dictate the terms.
    These decisions are clearly in MTI’s best interest only (oops, I forgot, WPS) certainly not the current teachers (whose jobs will continue to be cut to balance the budget, and workload increased because of lack of support staff, and declining quality of education — assuming the remaining teachers care), nor the new highly skilled teachers, who we will not be able to hire because will will be unable to offer a competitive beginning salary.
    However, I suppose we can save some money by eliminating unneeded staff at Doyle — in particular staff involved with MTI contract enforcement (MMSD seems to often lose at WERC), negotiations (MTI writes the contract!).

  2. It’s disappointing to have candidates — Beth Moss and Rick Thomas — with no opinion on a major issue which has had plenty of exposure over the years.
    I support Pam for the school board in part because of her experience in dealing with union issues, as well as her broad and deep roots in the community.

  3. Mr. Blume took the words right out of my mouth. I would add that if the district had to operate a for-profit business making horrible decisions such as this would be their undoing.

  4. My understanding of the health benefits negotiations was that it was a trade off of salary for benefits. The total cost package doesn’t change. If MTI folks take less choice in health coverage, they get the balance back in salary. They’d prefer to have the broader network for coverage than the income that is taxable. If we reduce the MMSD cost for their healthcare, we increase the MMSD cost in MTI salaries. Am I somehow mistaken?

  5. My understanding on the tradeoff between salary and benefits is the same as Dave’s, but the MTI stance still doesn’t make any sense to me. Why wouldn’t they want to find ways to contain health care costs if the money saved is put into higher salaries? Someone obviously benefits from the current arrangement, but I’m not sure that it is the larger part of the MTI membership. We live in a city that has a top-notch health care system and you’d think MTI could figure out a way to negotiate lower costs without losing much, if anything, in coverage. I work for the State and am sensitive to the bashing that public employees take over benefits, but MTI’s continued insistence on maintaining the status quo on health care coverage doesn’t seem to be in anybody’s best interests.

  6. I’ve also heard that MTI & MMSD agreed that in exchange for the WPS health plan being stipulated prior to negotiations, some MTI members would extend their day to supervise the MSCR activities in lieu of extra pay. Any truth to this?

  7. Give MMSD an “F” for effort. What a lazy-assed way to run a school district!!! Flunk them out of here.
    I like interest-based bargaining. Obviously, they don’t do that here. The IBB approach requires the parties to look at all issues from a problem-solving perspective, rather than a win-lose, “compromise,” or a “we get this/you get that” perspective.
    In IBB each side would look at the issue of health care in a rational, problem-solving way in which the interests of both sides are protected or advanced. What we get with MMSD are the following results: “sweeping issues under the rug” or “kicking the can down the road.” It’s a dumb way to run a school district, in my opinion, and one which gets a well deserved “F.”

  8. It is very challenging to obtain agreement on changes to health plans that lead to significant savings. While the John Mathews situation has a bad appearance, the reality is that health plan changes take a great deal of effort and persistence to secure in any district. It may take the Board a few years to secure agreement on this topic.
    Jill asked, “Why wouldn’t they want to find ways to contain health care costs if the money saved is put into higher salaries?” That is a good question. My view is that there are two major reasons rooted in human nature.
    When it comes to perceived risk vs. actual risk, many people are very sensitive to low-probability, catastrophic events. We worry more about showering in a thunderstorm than slipping on the bathroom floor. When any discussion of health plan changes occurs, there will be plenty of focus on catastrophic illness, coverage of catastrophic illness, and customer service in the event of catastrophic illness. In a bargaining unit of any size, there will be several immediate examples of families who have experienced, or are experiencing, catastrophic illness. Customer service and coverage, especially out of state coverage, come up as topics and unless the new plan is conclusively shown to be equivalent, resistance to change becomes strong.
    As an adjunct, modest gains for a majority of members tend to be outweighed if there are strong objections by some members. The salary gains for the majority of members need to be quite significant if there are groups of members that are convinced the change will result in a reduction in coverage that is very meaningful to them.
    Consider also that health insurance as a share of total compensation has increased greatly during the current finance system while real salary has stagnated. There may be selection occurring where individuals who more highly value their health plan enter and stay in teaching.
    Another factor is that many teachers view their health plan as something they were able to hold onto during the current finance system at the cost of accepting minimal increases in real salary.
    These are just observations. When given the choice, I opted for health plan changes in exchange for salary adjustments. But when health coverage is a subject of bargaining, it is important for the district to have a realistic understanding of the concerns that need to be adequately addressed to achieve agreement.
    The Board will also need to decide if its long term goal is to shift compensation from benefits to salary in order to be competitive in attracting and retaining teachers or to achieve cost savings.

  9. I agree with Donald on IBB.
    One of the 3 “tensions” within negotiations is the balance between making the pie larger vs. getting a larger piece of a smaller pie.
    The BoE vs. MMSD Administration vs. MTI clearly do not bargain to make the pie larger — the pie itsef is getting smaller.
    It is getting smaller because the main ingredients that make up the filling are shrinking: 1) funding — demands for increased salary and costs of health care insurance increase at a larger rate than funding, 2) trust — the public has decreasing trust of the public schools and educational insitutions to due perceived failures in honesty, effectiveness, educational fads, and outright failures, and 3) nutrition – the unreasonable increase in expectations that education (in particular, the public schools) solve all societal problems.
    Though the amount of resources being poured into the pie is increasing, the pie itself is increasingly just crust.

  10. A friend of mine who is on a school board outside of Madison also mentioned to me that MTI’s position could have something to do with the health insurance benefits that are paid to retirees, since coverage through WPS is likely to be more generous for those who live outside the area (e.g. retired to Florida) than an HMO might be. I don’t know how many retirees continue to receive health care through MMSD, but I can see how they would be an influential constituency….and becoming even more so with the number of folks eligible for retirement over the next few years.
    Thanks for your comments Tim. I always appreciate your insight and perspective. This is obviously a complicated issue for any school board.

  11. Clearly MTI can and should bargain for what it views to be in the best interests of its members.
    My concern in this matter is that the current school board majority has made the task of passing future, necessary referendums more difficult.

  12. I sent an email to the Board regarding this topic and here is the reply I received from Carol Carstensen:
    The newspaper story yesterday was wrong – the district and the Board are committed to bargaining on all major items – salary and health insurance included. We have not given anything away.

  13. Last Friday I was interviewed by Jason Shepard on the board vote. I believe that Jason has been interviewing all of the board members about their votes and their thoughts on why it did or did not make sense to support the voluntary impasse agreement. I believe that he is also polling all candidates.
    For the record, I was on the losing side of the vote. I feel that it was morally wrong to ask for concessions on health care from other bargaining units and then down play it with MTI by going to voluntary impasse. Especially when we are facing a $10.5 million deficit.
    The issue is whether we voluntarily gave up a bargaining tool on a very important issue. I believe, and I believe that the board members who voted with me believe, that we gave up such a tool and that this was a bad plan.

  14. In response to Ann R’s comment, I’ve also been told that the newspapers had printed incorrect information and the same information was incorrectly reported on the local news! It was in regard to East’s plans to eliminate AP and Advanced classes and increasing elementary class sizes. The “correct” information, of course, painted the Board in a better light. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it??

  15. What makes me wonder is why the school board majority would agree to a voluntary impasse on this topic given what Lucy blogged? The last contract involuntary impasse agreement said neither side could bring up changes in health in the final agreement, but along the way either side could bring up modifications during contract negotiations. Carol may be right on a technicality, but the substance of the board’s decision is in Lucy’s blog – the board gave away their power too early in the process given how they addressed other bargaining units and the looming multi-million cut.
    This decision does not bode well for future referendums. The public sees a less effective current board majority.

  16. Many of you have it right, from this (non-retired) teacher’s perspective. Jill J is right about retired teachers being a major constituency, but WPS is becoming too expensive for many retirees. Bridging the gap between employer-provided insurance and Medicare is the trick for them, and many are switching back to GHC to fill all the years of the gap.
    Unfortunately, John Matthews has hijacked the whole process from the teacher side. Our survey is bogus, and the bargaining committee is stacked with pro-WPS teachers, despite the fact that it is now a minority of teachers who take the absurdly priced WPS. “Costs” are never presented to teachers in union OR district material — one suspects there would be a teacher revolt against the Matthews regime if it were made clear that we are throwing away several thousand dollars of salary per person and an even greater amount in retirement benefits in each contract.
    So far the discussion here has avoided any anti-teacher language, to my relief. Please know that it is just a powerful minority inside MTI who are acting selfishly and irrationally. As disappointed as I am about our dysfunctional union, I hope that the Board helps us all out – students, teachers, and taxpayers – by finally killing the dinosaur WPS coverage and offering a truly competitive compensation package that draws real talent. Most teachers would actually thank them.

  17. Too bad there can’t be a taxpayer or parent representative in this bargaining exchange. After all, WE PAY THE BILL. I suppose one might argue that the Board of Education is the de facto representation of the taxpayer- whether they look out for our best interest or not;)

  18. Funny, David, I was thinking the same thing — that the public should be represented at the bargaining table.
    As I mentioned in a previous comment, I see 3 existing entities in the negotiations: MTI, MMSD Administration/Management, and BoE. They each have, or should be seen to have, differing interests.
    The BoE should be the public’s representative at the bargaining table. Though the Board is supposed to direct the Administration, like most other decisions, it is likely the other way around. If BoE is supposed to represent the Public, there is no sense in which the Administration’s interest is identical to the BoE.
    Not having been on the Board, I don’t know the extent to which the BoE actually affects the bargaining process — my sense, watching the Board over the years, is the Administration takes a position, and the Board votes to agree with the Administration position — pretty much as seemingly occurred in this Board’s “decision” on the Impasse contract.
    Of course, “what is” is not “what should be”.
    This issue should definitely be addressed during the School Board campaign.

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