By Steve Gunn
NEW BERLIN – The New Berlin school district is experiencing a huge turnover in teachers.
Fifty of the district’s 314 educators have indicated they will resign or retire before the next school year, according to a story recently published by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Some will undoubtedly view that figure with great alarm, and worry that students will suffer the consequences. But we think it’s a natural adjustment that comes with a necessary change in culture.
After years of pandering to the whims of the local teachers union, the school board has used Act 10 to exert its authority and impose a new system. The teachers who can live with that change will hang around, while those who demand a dominant union role will obviously move on.
The district will survive, and the students will thrive under a new system that finally puts their needs at the top of the list.
A district aching for change
New Berlin is a school district that’s been aching for change. It serves a conservative community, and has a reform-minded team of administrators who have always wanted to make students the district’s top priority.
But for years they were frustrated by the presence of an aggressive union with a self-serving agenda. The teachers had a lot of power and were able to call a lot of the shots, a fact that obviously didn’t sit well with the people who were elected or hired to run the district.
As the Journal Sentinel put it, “The tense relationship between teachers, top-level administrators and the school board did not happen overnight. The community has a history of rocky labor relations.”
Then came Act 10.
The local union should have seen the writing on the wall when former New Berlin Superintendent Paul Kreutzer was one of a handful of school leaders to stand with Gov. Scott Walker when he unveiled his game-changing legislation.
Now the administration has used Act 10 to exert its authority and rearrange priorities in the district.
What has the administration done that’s driving so many teachers away?
It has outsourced custodial services, which will save about $500,000 per year. It has required teachers to contribute toward their own retirement pensions. It has limited budget-busting post-retirement benefits. It has extended the teacher workday by 30 minutes at the high school level and 60 minutes at the elementary level.
It has reduced overall teacher salaries to levels more comparable with the state average. It has increased starting teacher salaries by $5,000, because board members felt salaries were too high at the top and too skimpy at the bottom.
All of those moves sound like common-sense attempts to save crucial tax dollars and reinvest in students. As the Journal Sentinel put it, the board has “taken back a district that many considered to be in the pocket of the teachers union.
Getting kids to the next level
Administrators say the changes were necessary to make student needs a higher priority than employees or their unions.
As veteran school board member Al Marquardt was quoted as saying, “Some of the things we needed to do to get our kids to the next level, including increasing student contact time and extra work for teachers, we were not ever going to get under the old collective bargaining method.”
No doubt about that, because teachers unions don’t exist to “get students to the next level.” They exist to promote the interests of employees and expand their own power base.
That led to an inevitable clash in philosophies, and Act 10 made sure the school board and the students were the winners.
Now the teachers who can’t stand being told what to do are acting like poor losers. They don’t like new rules and procedures, particularly when those rules and procedures are no longer negotiated at the collective bargaining table.
And many are hitting the highway.
“The unintended consequence of Act 10 is that there’s no more reason to stay in a district that is not treating you well anymore, and we have the ability to go to districts that recognize our value, and want us to join their staff,” said Jill Werner, a 15-year employee (teacher and later counselor) who recently announced her intent to leave the district.
That’s okay. A change in culture will mean a healthy change in personnel. The young teachers who come to the district will have no illusions about who’s in charge. They will be trained in an environment that puts kids first, and will have a clear understanding that administrators are the bosses and they are the employees – just like millions of private sector workers across the nation.
Will the more experienced teachers be missed at first? Certainly. But the younger teachers will gain experience and eventually excel in their roles. As Werner herself told the newspaper, the new environment “has caused the quality of the education within the schools to go down, at least initially, until others are trained.”
Trained they will be, and classes will begin as scheduled in the fall in the New Berlin school district.