By Steve Gunn
ELMBROOK, Wis. – In the bad old days, teachers union contract negotiations in the Elmbrook, Wisconsin school district could drag on for 12-18 months, leaving a trail of resentment on both sides of the bargaining table.
But Act 10 changed everything. The new state law, championed by Gov. Scott Walker, limits K-12 union collective bargaining to the topic of compensation, and raises cannot exceed increases in the consumer price index.
The result? Last week the Elmbrook school board and teachers union agreed on the terms of a new contract in their first negotiation session, and it only lasted 45 minutes, according to a story published by ElmbrookPatch.com
A nearby district, Pewaukee, reportedly settled on a new contract in just 35 minutes.
The Elmbrook union came to the table seeking the maximum 1.64 percent increase, retroactive to July, 2011. The school board offered a 1.5 percent raise, also retroactive to last year.
The school board prevailed with little argument. The raise will cost the district $502,000, a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of teacher raises in previous contracts.
Before Act 10, the Elmbrook union was able to secure salary increases of 2.4 percent, 3.4 percent and 4.5 percent, despite the economic challenges facing the school district. With full collective bargaining privileges, the unions had the power to demand more than the district could realistically afford, and they frequently did.
Act 10 gives school boards the ability to adjust their budgets to ensure student needs are met when money is tight. That wasn’t always possible in the days when employee salaries and benefits ate up most of the general fund budget.
If the new law seems like it shortchanges teachers, don’t be fooled. A period of correction in Wisconsin teacher compensation was clearly necessary.
Between 1998 and 2011, the average teacher salary in Wisconsin rose from $37,897 to $50,627. The average cost of teacher benefits between those years rose from $13,412 to $27,053.
The next logical step, in our opinion, would be for Wisconsin schools to scrap old-fashioned union pay scales and let competitive market forces dictate salaries for individual teachers.
As the economy improves, competition for quality instructors will increase between school districts, and reputable teachers should be able to use that leverage to increase their incomes.
Merit pay for effective classroom performance could also play a key role in rewarding those who get the job done. That would make a lot more sense than awarding the traditional automatic, annual salary increases for all teachers, regardless of performance.