FOX6 Investigators: Budget repair law leaves most school districts in good financial shape
The budget repair bill is now law in Wisconsin and the state budget is now passed. So where does your school stand in battling statewide budget cuts? FOX6 Investigators has an answer that may surprise you, no matter which side you're on.
When Governor Scott Walker introduced his controversial collective bargaining bill in February, more than 150 school districts across the state rushed to lock in new union contracts. Hundreds of others elected to wait, so who came out on top? The finance director at one local school says everyone's a winner with one glaring exception…
Governor Walker's cuts amount to a 5.5% reduction in revenue per student for every district in the state. Brown Deer Public Schools Finance Director Emily Koczela says, "Typically when we have to cut the budget, class sizes go up, we have to cut sports, we cut music or gym something."
That could have been a catastrophe for school finance directors like Koczela. She says her and her colleagues in other districts got help from Governor Walker's budget repair law. "We all knew that our revenue cap was dropping in an unprecedented way, but we also all knew that we had unprecedented financial opportunity."
Koczela says you can think of a school budget as a pie divided up into four quarters. Two quarters are staff salaries, One quarter is benefits, the other quarter is everything else. "So when you had to balance the budget and couldn't touch three quarters of it, it came pretty tough."
The budget repair bill allows schools to cut into the slice of pie devoted to fringe benefits. It requires teachers to pay at least 12.6% of their own health care premiums and 5.8% of their salary towards their own pensions.
As the bill was tied up in court, Koczela says schools were left in an awkward position. "We were playing a poker game, all of us. Is this law going to make it or not? And we laid down our last card and it was an ace. But until we laid it down, we didn't know."
During the month the law was tied up in the courts, more than 150 school districts voted to lock in new union contracts or temporary side agreements. Those districts include Port Washington, Sheboygan, Racine, Menomonee Falls, Wauwatosa and West Allis.
Hundreds of others decided to wait like Shorewood, Grafton, New Berlin, Elmbrook, Whitefish Bay and Brown Deer. Our investigation finds that virtually every district that signed a new deal got the same basic concessions on health care and pensions. Koczela says, "Almost every single other district that signed an extended contract signed it with the wind of the budget repair bill at their back." Koczela says she's talked to budget directors in districts with contracts and those without, and they all say they're in good financial shape for the upcoming year.
All of them except MPS, which cut a new deal with teachers before Governor Waler was elected…
On a union-friendly Facebook page, another MPS teacher argues they should all agree to the pensions contributions. She said, "We can save jobs and show our state that we are not the 'greedy union thugs' that we are purported to be."
Another teacher asks "Why is it seemingly better to have layoffs as opposed to paying a bit more?"
Yet another teacher e-mailed the FOX6 Investigators saying, "If there were a way for the union to open the contracts and only negotiate contributing towards pensions. I would hope that they would at least consider having those discussions."…
Gruenwald was a model teacher at 35th St. school. Her first graders all showed substantial improvement in reading scores from fall to winter to spring, but she's only been teaching for four years.
Under the terms of the current union contract at MPS, seniority rules. Gruenwald says, "That's why seniority needs to go."
Superintendent Thornton says this is a subject he disagrees with the union. He wants to get rid of the seniority system too. "I am losing great teachers, great teachers are actually exiting MPS."
Right now there's nothing he can do about that, because after all it's in the contract…