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Commentary: Aid cuts mean headache for schools

Matt Pommer

Gov. Jim Doyle’s talk of a 2.5 percent cut in state aid to local schools guarantees more stress for school boards, unionized teachers and property taxpayers.

School districts already are facing significant increases in pension costs in the next two years resulting from the economic meltdown that included pension fund reserves.

Add to that the legal changes Doyle has proposed for teacher labor relations. The governor wants to eliminate the qualified economic offer provisions of teacher labor-relations law. State law bars public employee strikes by providing binding arbitration as the way to settle contract disputes. For 15 years school districts have been able to avoid binding arbitration by offering wage-and-fringe benefit packages of at least 3.8 percent annually.

Teachers unions have argued it treats them unfairly and has held down their wages compared to other states. That appears to be true, but, thanks to soaring health insurance costs, fringe benefits are among the most costly in the nation.

Doyle also wants to rearrange the focus of arbitration decisions, placing a lower focus on the economic condition of the state and of individual school districts. With unemployment nearing double digits, that idea seems to provide an election-year topic for 2010. Republicans ought to count their campaign blessings.

The budget proposals reward the unionized teachers, perhaps the key group which helped Doyle get elected and return Democratic legislative majorities. Politics is about helping the friends who elect you.

Some will suggest the changes will help unions improve education by focusing on more than compensation issues. But it’s tough to forget early American labor leader Samuel Gompers, who, when asked for the goals of labor, replied: “More.”

Less state aid, higher pension costs, and probable labor-law changes will squeeze both school boards and unionized teachers. School board members will have to explain their compensation positions rather than hide behind the QEO excuse of a 3.8 percent annual increase.

On the other side, teachers for years have been itching to end the curbs on getting to binding arbitration. What will they seek in hard economic times? They could end up having their heads served on an arbitration plate.

Non-union state employees are being furloughed into what amounts to 3 percent reductions in pay in the next two years. The governor had floated the idea that state employees should contribute more toward their health insurance and pensions. That also sounds like a reduction in take-home pay.

The school’s economic drama is complicated. This is not a simple issue like tobacco-free workplaces -– a topic easy for all news media to cover.

The key to citizen understanding of the choices and the decisions is your local newspaper coverage. Thomas Jefferson said newspapers were essential to American government. That’s especially true this year as the school crunch unfolds.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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