“The kids are delighted to be back at school,” James Howard said as he addressed the Board and numerous spectators at tonight’s Board of Education Workshop. Everyone nodded their heads in agreement, while they anxiously awaited the real topic of conversation. This would be the Board’s first public conversation on the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) Employee Handbook, a handbook that would replace more than sixty years of collective bargaining.
As Howard spoke, I surveyed the crowd that had gathered in the McDaniels Auditorium at the Doyle Administration Building. Madison Teachers Inc. (MTI) members stood out in their red, Union T-shirts. They made up more than half of the audience. The AFSCME members were dressed in green, representing custodial, maintenance and food service workers in the district. MMSD administrators, community members and a County Board member were also present.
Jane Belmore, interim superintendent for the district, summarized the employee handbook process. Belmore cited the Work Group’s mission as improving student learning, while empowering staff to do their best work. She continued with mention of aligning our resources, and eliminating redundancies in laws/policies. Belmore reminded the Board that the only “bargainable” item would be the total base wage increase, an amount that can be no greater than the percent increase in the consumer price index.
Howard was the first to comment on this summary, stating that he wanted to clear up the “misinformation” that was circulating. Contrary to what people were saying, Howard asserted that the staff would have input into this process.
The past few days had been full of conversations in the public regarding this process. Teachers were among the groups upset that this plan was set in motion without their input. This fear was affirmed later in the meeting when Maya Cole inquired about how many times the Handbook Work Group had met. Belmore gave a startling answer, “once last year and twice so far this year.” Rumblings could be heard from the MTI and AFSCME heavy areas of the auditorium. When had this happened? The teachers in the crowd had not even known this Work Group existed until a few days before this meeting. It was now clear that the wheels had been set in motion and that the MMSD employees had not been invited on board.
Throughout the meeting, many concerns were shared about the handbook process. Marjorie Passman expressed concerns about the timeline, getting staff input, the purpose of the Work Group, and defining the Board’s role. Ed Hughes echoed the timeline concern and added questions about how the public would be notified. He expressed his understanding that this was now a “public process.”
While several Board members seemed to agree on the problems of the process, an agreement was not reached regarding the solution. Belmore expressed a desire for the timeline to conclude before decisions were made regarding next year’s budget. She explained that the items in the MMSD Employee Handbook would affect the budget. She extrapolated that the Work Group would likely firm up some of the courses of action and timeline in the next week.
Arlene Silveira then brought a new idea to the table. Silveira inquired about the possibility of having a rotating Board member on the planning committee, a committee that currently only includes MMSD administration. In her plan, the Board members would take turns sitting on the Work Group so that the input would be balanced. This would mean Board input at each step of the process rather than getting “all the way down the pike” and then being involved. According to Silveira, this was a model that other districts were using quite successfully. Passman also showed appreciation for this method of Board involvement.
Regarding the process itself, two possible paths, each philosophically distinct, were laid out by Cole. The first path would involve starting with the original document and then “taking out what you don’t like.” In Cole’s eyes, the second path would treat the Work Group members as partners who would come up with an entirely new document that would be a “win win” situation for our students. Belmore’s response was that the school district “has been doing good things for employees for years.” She claimed that the Work Group would “work with that body of history,” to attract the highest quality teachers and create that “win win” situation for the district.
It was at this point in the meeting that Howard attempted to hurry the conversation along. The agenda was lengthy and he expressed a desire to keep the handbook conversation short. Other Board members raised their hands and clearly expressed an interest to delve further into the conversation. This seemed to relieve the anxious onlookers in the auditorium.
It was Passman who brought the “elephant in the room” directly to the forefront. The meeting would not have been complete without mention of Wisconsin’s Governor Walker and his infamous attack on workers’ rights under Act 10. Passman declared that while the Board needed to be in compliance with the new laws, teachers should be “equal partners” in this process. At this statement, the auditorium erupted in applause which was quickly stifled by Howard. Under collective bargaining, stakeholders had equal input. This new process laid out by MMSD swayed far from that reality.
Though she didn’t state her opinion on the value of teacher input, Cole too expressed frustration with the process. “We only get one chance for this.” Cole pointed out that we should make the process what we want it to be. As Howard glanced down at his watch once again, Cole asserted that moving away from this agenda item did not mean that she agreed with the process as it had been laid out.
Silveira took a similar stance with staff involvement in the creation of the Handbook. She felt it was important to involve key people early on in the process and that doing so would be helpful. Silveira also expressed the need to define the key issues that the handbook would address and narrow down its focus.
The conversation was meaningful and the statements by the Board were thoughtful, but the hour meeting was just that – discussion. And it was a discussion that Howard abruptly cut short this evening. In his closing remarks, Howard expressed that it was “hard to reach conclusions” since this was the first time this item had been discussed. He saw two common themes among Board members, the need to seek out input for the Employee Handbook and a need to move things along in a timely manner. The Board adjourned this section of the meeting, packed up their belongings and moved to a smaller room to discuss the remaining agenda items.
Immediately, the auditorium erupted in conversation and speculation of what was to come. There was obvious anxiety regarding the Handbook and the uncertainty surrounding its creation. What was next? What was allowed? Some wondered if Belmore would make a move to include employees in the Work Group. At least two Board members had seen the value in staff input. Others present started counting possible votes if an item were to be put onto an upcoming agenda to approve expansion of this Work Group to MMSD employees. Many rehashed Board members words in an effort to speculate what would happen next. With all of these conversations, one thing was abundantly clear; this was uncharted territory for MMSD.
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