News Flash: John Matthews Is Willing to Delay Negotiations for Teachers’ Wages Until After the April 5 School Board Elections

Despite a written agreement between Madison Teachers Incorporated and the Board of Education that aims at settling the teachers contract for 2005-07 by June 30, union executive director John Matthews and Superintendent Art Rainwater made a jovial � and unprecedented – announcement that they would delay discussion of wages and benefits until after the April 5 school board elections.
Delaying talk about pay and benefits for teachers is a puzzling step for union leader Matthews, especially given his March 17 comments that “No matter what the settlement is, it won’t be enough to reward the teachers,” Matthews said as the MTI proposal was presented Wednesday, “These are teachers, not priests and nuns who took a vow of poverty.”

Superintendent Rainwater�s reasons for delaying dollars and cents discussions are equally mysterious given the push to finalize wording for three referenda on March 28. Under the circumstances, Rainwater�s communications to the board on contract negotiations can only be described as terse.
In a March 16 e-mail, Rainwater told the board:
�We will begin the teacher bargaining process this afternoon. We are following a different initial process this year. Today MTI will give us their initial proposal. We will not provide our proposal. On Monday night, March 28, we will meet with you in closed session to go over their initial proposal and our proposed counter. We will then give them our initial offer on Wednesday, March 30. That offer will be what is agreed to on March 28. Negotiations will then begin.�
On March 18, he sent an e-mail to the Board that said:
�We have changed the dates for giving our initial proposal to MTI in teacher bargaining. We will meet with the Board on Monday night April 4 to complete our proposal and give it to MTI on April 6. This is because of spring break this next week and the number of people involved who are out of town.�
Meanwhile, the local news media tell us that Matthews and MTI want to discuss non-economic issues before exchanging economic proposals. Matthews believes that teachers are more interested in resolving questions about their possible intellectual property rights in curriculum than resolving issues of wages and benefits that affect them all in a year when administration proposes to cut over 90 teaching positions.
This turn of events looks very much like an agreement to try to minimize damage to MTI candidates on April 5 and to the May operating budget referendum by keeping economic negotiations out of the news.
Here are a few reasons why I am skeptical of the rationales offered to explain delaying economic negotiations.
First, teachers can copyright curriculum materials that they produce if they believe that their work is original and innovative. Copyright prevents others from profiting from their work. Contractual provisions are not necessary to protect those rights.
Furthermore, most teachers are overworked. They donate many after-school hours each week to help kids, attend school activities, and write grant applications to fund events, materials, computer programs and other items that the district used to provide for their students. Given pressing issues of work load and job security, it�s hard to believe that intellectual property rights are more important to them than future wages and perhaps new protections in case of lay-off.
Second, the Board and MTI have a written agreement that sets June 30 as the target date for settling the contract. Under the agreement, the parties negotiate until mid-May, turn to mediation if necessary, and put unresolved issues to arbitration if there is no voluntary agreement by June 30. This timetable is important because the new fiscal year for the district begins on July 1 and the Board needs to adopt the 2005-06 budget by the same date.
Third, negotiations with MTI are on a two-year cycle. Both sides know the negotiating calendar very well. Is it truly possible that district and union administration were unaware of the dates for spring break when they planned the negotiating calendar?
Inquiring minds might see reasons why MTI and the superintendent might not want economic negotiations in the news before April 5. If the Board grants teachers the same kinds of wage and benefit packages that it has already granted to administrators and the small unionized groups, teacher negotiations will add $8M to the budget for 2005-06 and a larger amount to the budget for 2006-07. The budget for next year is already increased by another $2M for the increases for administrators, custodians and educational assistants (of these groups, administrators earn the largest salary and benefits).
Consider the dilemma that John Matthews faces in the trade-offs between representing his members and election politics. A public discussion of $10M in new employee wages and benefits before the school board elections on April 5 may create problems for the re-election campaigns of Carol Carstensen and Bill Clingan, the MTI-endorsed candidates who voted for the previous employee increases that will set the floor for the teachers� union demands. In this context, a long, quiet discussion of intellectual property rights may be the most desirable course until April 6.
Consider Art Rainwater�s own dilemmas, for that matter. The budget for next year is already increased by another $2M for the increases for administrators, custodians and educational assistants and at least $8M for the teachers� settlement. Rainwater�s proposal to cut $7.4M in school staff and programs assumes an increase of at least $10M in employee wages and benefits. The Board majority plans to put three referendums on the ballot in a special election on May 24. The operating budget referendum is the one that would cover the employee increases. The possibility of the public connecting the teachers� union negotiations with the size of the operating budget referendum may not be very appealing for Mr. Rainwater, either. Perhaps the spring break followed by negotiations that give priority to intellectual property rights is what provided the common ground behind the smiles and camaraderie that marked the joint announcement that the district has started bargaining with MTI but won�t be talking about economics until after the school board elections on April 5.