Statement on MMSD/MTI Tentative Collective Bargaining Agreement Vote

After much consideration, I have decided to vote against the tentative agreement negotiated by the District and the MTI teachers union. I will do so because the agreement fails to include significant health insurance changes, and as a result, unreasonably depresses the salary increases that can be provided to our teachers.
While the total salary and benefit increase to our teachers under the proposed agreement is 4.02%, our teachers will only receive a 1% increase in their salaries in each of the next two years. This is so even though we ask our teachers to do more and more each year given budget cuts and changes in our student demographics. The rest of the increase is eaten up by benefits, the vast majority of which is for health insurance.
I would like to see our teachers’ salaries increase by more than 1% per year. I believe a greater increase is well-deserved, and is needed to continue to keep and retain excellent teachers. I also believe a greater increase is needed so that the District’s starting salary for new teachers is competitive.
While money is obviously very tight, we could provide teachers with higher salaries if the District and the MTI teachers union – working together – would negotiate health insurance changes. The District’s initial proposal regarding health care insurance was to offer teachers the choice of three different HMO options or WPS. If a teacher chose one of the HMO options – Group Health Cooperative, Physicians Plus, or Dean Care– the District would pay the full cost of that HMO. If however a teacher chose coverage under WPS, which would still be available, the District would only pay the cost of the most expensive HMO, and the teacher would pay the rest of the cost of WPS. This proposal would have provided for a 2.81% salary increase for teachers for 2007-2008 – as opposed to a 1% increase.
The District and other employees groups have successfully worked together to revise health insurance coverages during this past year with the result that more money was available for employee wages to these groups. I was hopeful that similar results could be achieved for our teachers.
When I have raised this concern about how teacher salaries have been unreasonably depressed by the increasing cost of WPS, I have been told by some that it is none of the District’s business how MTI decides to split the negotiated salary and benefit package. I just cannot agree with this view.
While it is true that the total dollar impact to the District is the same regardless of how MTI splits the money between salary and benefits, I believe it is very important to the District how the money is spent. It is essential to the District that we have good, competitive teacher salaries and that our health insurance costs not drain money away from those salaries. It is essential that our teachers are paid fairly and equitably. It is not fair that a teacher who takes WPS insurance should receive $7,500 more in salary and benefits than a teacher who takes Group Health Cooperative. It is not fair that a majority of our teachers take Group Health Cooperative, yet they continue to have their compensation reduced to fund the benefits of others.
I am extremely disappointed that the District and MTI, working together, could not reach an agreement that puts more money into teachers salaries and less into health insurance costs. I truly believe that if the interests of the whole had been put first, this could have been done. Because we failed to take advantage of this opportunity, I feel I have no choice but to vote against the tentative agreement.

9 thoughts on “Statement on MMSD/MTI Tentative Collective Bargaining Agreement Vote”

  1. I agree with you, Lawrie…and what’s even more disheartening are reports that the MTI contract ratification meeting was attended by only 100 or so members…out of 2,700 members!

  2. I’d like to add a different perspective on the contract.
    For the reasons she expresses, I agree with Lawrie on the desirability of changes to the teachers’ compensation and benefits package that would shift money away from the expensive WPS health plan and towards higher salaries.
    But I think we should put the contract settlement in perspective. The contract has a first order of impact, which is on the school district’s budget. The parties were able to reach a settlement that calls for increases of 4.02% the first year and 4.025% the second year. To me, this seems like a good result.
    Given the way the system is structured, teachers’ compensation has to go up at least 3.8% per year as a practical matter. The challenge for school boards is to bring in an acceptable settlement as close to 3.8% as possible. According to the most recent data from the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, the average total package increase per teacher across the state for year 2006-2007 was 4.29%. Had our contract called for increases of 4.29% the first year and 4.29% the second year, the contract would have cost the district about $500,000 more in the first year and more than $1 million more in the second year than the contract that was just approved. It seems to me that we should appreciate a contract that appears to beat the state average by about $1.5 million over its two year term. To state the obvious, that’s $1.5 million in budget cuts that won’t have to be made, and hooray for that.
    The contract also has a second-order of impacts, which can be described as how it affects other district policies and goals. In addition to a general sense of fairness, Lawrie highlights the contract’s impact on the relative level of compensation paid to teachers who choose the Group Health option, and how this affects the District’s ability to attract and retain the type of teachers the District wants to employ. I agree with Lawrie that this is an unfortunate by-product of the terms that the contract contains. But I think there are two points to bear in mind here.
    First, it is up to MTI to determine how it wishes to expend its bargaining capital in contract negotiations. The district can and should push hard in negotiations for the changes in the approach to compensation that it wishes to see. While I have no way of knowing, I assume it did so in this case. But ultimately the only way the District could seek to impose its will on this point on a resistant MTI is by seeking to go to arbitration, which is a risky and District-unfriendly route that is far better avoided.
    Sometimes there seems to be an undercurrent to criticism of the contract that MTI isn’t really looking out for its members’ interests and a different approach to these issues by MTI would be better for everyone. I think this line of thinking should be resisted. Just as I think the union shouldn’t be endorsing school board candidates, I think the District should stay out of internal MTI matters and simply accept that its approach to bargaining reflects the wishes of its members.
    Second, there seem to be a fair number of folks out there who are consistently critical of the School Board and the School District. You might even find one or two of them on the radio. I had occasion to hear some discussion of the contract on a radio show, and the gist of the comments was that the spineless school district got steamrolled once again. Excuse me, but no. From the short-term perspective of a Madison tax-payer who would naturally focus on the first-order budget effect of the contract, there seems virtually no legitimate grounds for complaint. For someone like Lawrie with long-term concerns about attracting and retaining quality teachers, there is a significant basis for concern. But it is important to keep in mind the difference between first-order and second-order effects when those who are so inclined start to demagogue the contract.
    It is quite likely that the district is going to have to go to referendum and ask the community to vote for higher taxes for the sake of the schools. Before approving a referendum, voters will want assurances that the members of the Board of Education are doing their jobs as careful stewards of the civic purse. The recently-approved contract is certainly not perfect, but the community should know that from a first-order budget perspective, the School Board seems to have discharged its duty pretty well.

  3. David,
    A while back on another thread you said this was “democracy in action.” Why the poor turnout? Because Union members were given 36 hours notice of the meeting, in the middle of grading final exams, attending graduations, and performing all sorts of other year-end tasks. Why the short notice? Because the MTI establishment knew that those in attendance would be the most rabid WPS supporters. A quorum of 100 out of a bargaining unit of 2400 is not really democracy, is it? Full credit should go to Lawrie here for a well-reasoned and positive approach, and to Lucy and Maya, who joined her in voting no.

  4. Yeah, it would be democracy in action IF more than 1/24th of the members voted…alas, maybe the MTI democracy mirrors society as a whole…and their leadership mirrors our current leadership as well:(

  5. Lawrie’s comments thoughtfully track the argument against the proposed contract. Ed Hughes’ arguments miss key points, it seems to me.
    From an MMSD stakeholder’s viewpoint (not just a taxpayer’s), the contract is awful. The baby-boomer teachers are expected to retire at a significant rate — they will need to be replaced by new hires, and those hires will need to be qualified and willing to settle for the salary we offer. They will be younger and will be expecting a competitive salary, and will not want their salaries depressed to pay for a health insurance plan that is more expensive than necessary (WPS).
    Other districts with more attractive compensation packages will get the better teachers. Madison’s cost of living, cost of real estate cannot be afforded by younger teachers on the salary MMSD will now be offering.
    As for the referendum, I can hear the mantra now. We need to go to referendum because the teachers’ salaries are so low that MMSD cannot attract the best.
    As a taxpayer (and stakeholder), I WILL remember this contract when the referendum is placed on the ballot, and I WILL remember who voted for it, and who voted against.

  6. Larry — Thanks for your comments.
    My view is not based on what I’d consider to be an optimum bargaining result. We probably don’t disagree much on what that would look like. My comments were premised more on what I understand to be the logic of collective bargaining. As I understand it, that logic includes the notions that each side is entitled to determine for itself what it bargaining priorities will be. Based on everything I’ve read, the top priority for MTI in bargaining was preserving WPS as a viable insurance option. Any number of us might think that that is misguided, but that is MTI’s decision to make.
    Assuming that preserving the WPS option is MTI’s top bargaining priority, then, as a practical matter, I think the school district had little chance of persuading MTI to concede this point and accept the kind of insurance proposal that Lawrie recommends. Or, what amounts to the same thing, the price that MTI would have demanded to make the concession was unacceptably high.
    If I’m wrong on this, and if there was room for a concession along these lines that the District failed to exploit, then I’m wrong. If I’m right, however, then the only option for the District would have been to force the negotiations into arbitration. As I’ve said, I think that the outcome of arbitration would have been so unpredictable and potentially costly that this would not have been a prudent course. Perhaps you or others disagree. If so, I’d welcome hearing your views on that.
    In light of the parties’ relative bargaining strengths, and in light of MTI’s self-proclaimed bargaining priorities – all of which are a given from the District’s perspective – I don’t view the contract as awful, as you do. I understand the basis for your criticism. But I continue to think that emphasizing the criticism without acknowledging that the overall dollar impact of the budget appears to reflect well on the District tends to play into the hands of those who are not friends of the schools.
    As to the referendum, I would share your dismay if a referendum were packaged as a way of allowing MTI to recapture the salary concessions it made as the cost of retaining the WPS insurance option. I would like to see a narrowly-tailored approach to a referendum that would be designed the enable the District to avoid making further cuts in programs. Time will tell on this one.

  7. I agree with Lawrie’s thoughtful comments on the MTI contract and appreciate her sharing them with us.
    The teachers’ contract is a public relations problem for the district, even if it was a success from a collective bargaining perspective. Most people don’t care about the nuances of collective bargaining. The fact that John Matthews is a compensated board member of WPS and that MTI refuses to seriously negotiate on the WPS aspects of the benefits package is a problem. There are plenty of people out there who will never vote for a referendum until there is some movement on the health insurance issue and I think Lawrie and Lucy and Maya recognize that.
    Also, we’ve seen posts here on SIS and I’ve talked to enough teachers to know that many feel that John Matthews and other MTI leadership bargains more for their own self-interests than the interests of the whole of MTI membership. The longer this continues, the more damage will be done to the district because we will not be able to compete with other districts to attract and retain high quality staff. It really is a no-win situation right now, and maybe won’t change until John Matthews retires, but I applaud Lawrie’s refusal to just “rubber stamp” the status quo and let it continue without comment. Perhaps next time around there will be more Board members willing to take a firm stand on this issue and actually try and address the problem.

  8. Does anyone understand MTI enough to clarify John Matthews role? Is he hired by the teachers via a vote? Do the members of MTI really have to wait for him to retire or can they vote him out of office? Once Art retires what if John and the new Super are not so congenial……….
    It is sad the only MMSD staff I have discussed many issues with that feel their voice or concerns or positions are taken by MTI are the few that are retiring. I guess if enough of them are fed up with it they can show up to vote and yes the timing stinks but the staff needs to verbalize this to their leaders. Over and again teachers tell me BOE only listens to parents and not the staff, and it seems MTI doesn’t listen to them or makes the situation difficult to be heard. It really makes you wonder why anyone would work under those conditions whether their health care was the cream of the crop or not.
    There is such a huge disconnect between downtown, MTI and the individual schools, and the information the BOE receives from Doyle. I wish more staff verbalized their positions but they frequently express how powerless and unwelcome their views are to Doyle and BOE. While I doubt that is true that is what they perceive.

  9. Mary:
    You can actually find out a fair amount about the organization structure of MTI here:
    I’d note that John Matthews serves as executive director of MTI, which consists of five unions, not just the teachers. Each MTI union has a separate board of directors.
    Like most executive directors of any private organization, I assume he serves at the pleasure of its governing board (or boards, as may be the case w/ MTI), which in turn are selected by the membership.

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