Janesville School District superintendent trying to quell labor rumors
JANESVILLE Superintendent Karen Schulte is trying to quell rumors about school employee benefits and salaries, but she hasn't been able to satisfy the head of the teachers union.
It's not true, Schulte wrote in a recent blog posting, that salaries will be slashed, veteran teachers will be laid off or that the new employee handbook will be horrible news.
Schulte tried to allay fears by telling what she knows about what is planned for teachers and other employees when union contracts cease to protect them July 1.
Schulte compared the rumors to a snowball that gains mass as it rolls.
"If you are one of the people pushing the snowball, please stop. There is nothing further from the truth," she wrote.
Janesville Education Association President Dave Parr said the blog is not enough.
The blog hints of behind-closed-doors discussions, and that's what leads to fear and speculation, Parr said.
"Everybody feels they're left out, and it's very disconcerting to everyone," Parr said. "They want be part of it. They want to know what's going on, and they know something is happening, but nobody will come out and be forthright about it."
Schulte said she has met with focus groups and continues to invite employees to weigh in via an email account set up for that purpose. She also invited employees to come to the once-a-month school board listening session.
That's not good enough, Parr said.
"If we sit down and have a thorough discussion, and we come to an agreed-upon conclusion, that creates buy-in (among employees)," Parr said.
The concern is over contracts that run out June 30. Wisconsin Act 10 does not allow new contracts that spell out benefits and work rules. The only thing that can be negotiated is wages, and any increase is limited to cost of living.
A handbook will replace the contracts. The school board has approved parts of the handbook, but key parts covering benefits are on hold.
Board members say their labor lawyers have told them to wait because Act 10 still is being challenged in court.
Parr said teachers are trying to figure out what will happen. They hear school board members quoting from other districts' handbooks, and they know those handbooks contain items such as cuts in teacher-prep time, loss of sick days and requirements to work more after-school activities, Parr said.
Neither the board nor Schulte has addressed those potential issues. Parr said negotiations, as allowed under a Dane County court ruling that is being challenged, are the answer.
"Delaying the start of negotiations is only leading to more apprehension. The board could stop all of the rumors if they wanted to," Parr said.
Schulte said employees do have a say via an email account set up for handbook feedback in the board's monthly board listening session.
One teacher, Jim Reif of Craig High School, spoke at Tuesday's listening session. He discussed ideas for changing the early-retirement system and urged the board to make decisions so workers know what to expect in their benefits and paychecks next school year.
"Teachers start looking (for jobs) early, you know, and that's my biggest concern," Reif said.
"We're starting to consider moving forward on some things," board member Kevin Murray responded.
Murray said the early retirement benefit won't be the same as it is today.
"I don't think anybody expects it to," Reif responded.
Schulte wrote in her blog that all union employees will begin to see deductions from their paychecks for their pension fund starting July 1.
The deduction will be at a rate of 6.65 percent of salary, she said in an email to The Gazette.
Schulte noted the school board makes the final decisions, but she knows the board is leaning toward a health plan with three choices.
Employees would cover about 10 percent of the premium cost in two of those options. Most employees now pay 3 percent.
"While this is not locked in, I haven't heard the premium will be any higher than 12 percent," Schulte wrote.
No premium payments are contemplated in the third option, a health savings account model with a high deductible.
Schulte said the increased cost to employees is small compared with other school districts.
As for wages, Schulte suggested incentive pay could play a role.
"There is no recommendation for sweeping cuts across the district in salaries and wages," Schulte wrote. "However, my recommendation is that if an employee has been informed by their supervisor of their low performance, a change in salary will be considered."
The district divides employees into low, medium and high performers. Schulte said in her email that "… unless you are a low performer, even if a new salary structure is developed, there is a good chance that there would be a 'hold harmless' to make sure that there would not be a decrease in salary.
"I also anticipate the ability for bonuses and also incentivized pay.
"In short, I think our high performers will really like the changes that I think will be occurring."