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Commentary: Teachers should share in cutbacks

Matt Pommer

How about a pay freeze or only small raises for teachers? Other public employees are taking temporary reductions, partial furloughs and layoffs, but fewer teachers are retiring, leaving an overabundance in many areas.

State aid has been reduced in scores of school districts. Unemployment in Wisconsin hovers around 9 percent. Major increases in school property taxes would trigger angry reactions in these hard times.

School furloughs and layoffs seem remote since state law sets the number of days children must be in school. School boards and teachers are examining ways to attract more federal aid, but that is unlikely to occur before property tax rates are set this fall.

The supply of good teachers is high, although some rural districts may have difficulty finding specialists.

Consider what happened in Madison.

More than 1,700 licensed teachers applied for this year’s 130 full- and part-time openings in the Madison public school system. There were 700 applicants for 20 elementary school slots. Another 120 applied for the 15 special-education openings.

Many principals report being “extremely impressed” with the five finalists they interviewed, according to Joe Quick, a school system spokesman. The only need late in the summer was for bilingual math teachers, he said.

Meanwhile, other public employees are getting furloughed or taking temporary pay cuts and pay freezes.

State workers, the biggest employment group in Madison, are being required to take 16 unpaid days off in the next two years. That amounts to about a 3 percent reduction in pay.

Dane County employee unions have agreed to take a 5 percent pay reduction for the last six months of 2009. Pay freezes and cutbacks are not uncommon among public workers.

School boards across the state howled this year when the Legislature eliminated the qualified economic offer language from labor law. Under QEO a school board could avoid binding arbitration if it offered an economic package providing a 3.8 percent annual boost in pay and fringe benefits.

The QEO excuse is gone for school boards and alternatives are available: a pay freeze, higher pay for science, math, and bilingual teachers, and rewarding teachers whose pupils score well on standardized tests.

Some school board members harbor hope the Legislature will reverse course when it returns. That may be wishing on a star.

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

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