Back in the day when I was an MTEA union rep for my school, “We can’t afford it” was a commonplace bargaining strategy from MPS administration. There was even one time that then-Superintendent Bill Andrekopoulos confronted me after a town hall meeting, wagged his finger in my face, and scolded me: “We can’t afford it!” The response from MTEA, backed with facts and figures and powerpoint wizardry, was always, “We absolutely can afford it.”
There is a huge difference between now and then, which is that as the administration is still saying, “We can’t afford it,” the MTEA is has changed its response. Now MTEA is saying, “You’re right–we can’t.” And MTEA is taking a plan to its membership rooted firmly in that new reality.
Now, I am not naive; as deep as I wade into school policy and politics and so forth, that MTEA is now agreeing with administration is not a surprise to me. Even before Governor Scott Walker and state Republicans went after K-12 funding in their 2011-13 budget, the future of MPS was dismal. The contract MPS and MTEA signed in late 2010 was an acknowledgement of that–it cut spending by almost $100 million over two years. It included a number of concessions from teachers, including two years of frozen pay.
Back after Act 10 was passed–but before it became law–I encouraged MTEA and MPS to make adjustments to the contract they had just signed to account for some of the devastating cuts to education coming from Madison. This was not because I believe MPS teachers are overpaid, that we don’t deserve just compensation for working with Milwaukee’s (and Wisconsin’s) most difficult students. Rather, as a teacher I would rather take the bullet myself, in my wallet, than have it hurt my students more.
And beyond that, it would have been a great gesture on the part of MTEA. Sympathy was swinging teachers’ way as details of Act 10 trickled out, and I believed that capitalizing on that with some additional self-sacrifice was smart politics and PR. But we didn’t–strike one.
Last summer there was a second chance at making that same gesture, but Milwaukee teachers rejected the idea of giving concessions in a close vote. I thought then, and still believe, that it was a bad PR move on our part; the politics were all wrong. Strike two.
In November, the Milwaukee Board of School Directors took measures into its own hands. Board members were slated to vote on what additional contributions teachers and other employees, after their contracts expired, were to start making toward health insurance and pensions. Instead, the Board went far beyond that, passing a measure that also demanded furlough days and froze salary–including step raises for experience–for three years following the expiration of the contracts.
The response from MTEA was almost nil. Though the extremity of the move was a surprise, MTEA knew something was going to happen. Yet there was no call for teachers to be at the meeting, no call for action of any sort related to the Board. Instead, the union was gearing up for recall activities and other unrelated business. According to his facebook page, the night the Board passed the pay freeze and regressive salary reductions, MTEA President Bob Peterson was not there, but was rather sitting on the North Avenue bridge over I-43, “occupying.”
Indeed, for the bulk of this past winter it felt like every communique from MTEA was recall- or occupy-themed, especially its “4×10” campaign. For all the world, it seemed certain MTEA was putting all its eggs in the recall-Walker basket. Strike three.
But this isn’t baseball. MTEA is getting another swing.
They’re calling it the “MPS Children’s Week.” Earlier in this space, Larry Miller hinted at the existence of such a plan. Here, I’d like to spell it out in more detail and explain why I think this time the union is getting it right.
“MPS Children’s Week” is, without question, designed to be a public-relations win for the union. They fear, and I don’t disagree, that “those greedy teacher unions” will be the Willie Horton of Scott Walker’s campaign in the coming recall. Pre-empting that, or at least countering that a little bit, is one result they hope for.
More importantly, they hope to build goodwill and sympathy in the community beyond the immediacy of the recall. MTEA wants to be known as the ones who never have and never will abandon Milwaukee’s children, and goad the rest of the region and state into making the same commitment.
There are three key points to the plan, not necessarily in this order:
1. Winning the recall. Both MTEA and MPS administration are pretty certain that the current power structure in Madison–temporary tie in the senate notwithstanding–will not be good for this district into the future. “We had already been cut to the bone; Walker broke the bone,” Peterson said, introducing the plan to teachers at a meeting this week. The take-away is that MPS simply can’t survive any more cuts.
2. A week’s worth of highly visible pro-public education activities April 22-28, starting with volunteering at Milwaukee churches to tutor students for the ACT (MPS ACT day is April 24). The rest of the week highlights arts, literacy, STEM, health, and career education. Plus MTEA plans press events to highlight the kind of sacrifices and dedication Milwaukee teachers display on a regular basis, from out-of-pocket spending on classrooms and students to the time given up from our everyday lives. Also, parents and community members will be encouraged to visit schools and see what actually happens there on a daily basis, and to see for themselves that MPS is not full of thugs.
3. A negotiated contribution–MTEA doesn’t want to call it a concession–of one week’s salary from the 2012-2013 school year to go directly back into the classroom through class-size reduction and return of specials–art, music, phy-ed–to schools. Unlike the impression some of us had when the news first surfaced, this is not an elimination of the 3% raise scheduled for teachers next year, nor is it a freeze in step raises. It might still be more than some members can or want to pay, and its passage (voting happens next week) is not guaranteed.
Peterson estimated the total contribution to be around $10 million (a very different number than what was reported here). That’s about 100 more teachers in Milwaukee classrooms than would otherwise be there. (Both Thornton and Board President Michael Bonds have pledged that all funds received from this effort will be spent in the classroom, not on administration.)
But the deduction of one week’s salary from teachers is a key part of the larger campaign. MTEA is asking for, and has already secured, one-week contributions from other stakeholders in the community. At least two Board members so far have committed to giving a week’s pay to this fund, as has Superintendent Thornton, MTEA Executive Director Sid Hatch, and–at least according to Peterson–Tim Sheehy of the Metro Milwaukee Association of Commerce.
Peterson went on to say that the goal is to get many more members of the community to make the same or a different kind of contribution. Elected officials and business and community leaders will be requested to give at first; then MTEA will demand they give; and then, Peterson suggested, MTEA may “occupy” something somewhere in an attempt to persuade greater participation.
Though “occupying” may go too far, I think MTEA has finally landed on the right side of the issue. Assuming membership votes yes–and as I noted, that’s not a safe assumption yet–there is little chance this can be spun against teachers. It will not persuade the anti-union, anti-public education dead-enders that “occupy” Madison and wide swaths of Milwaukee’s AM dial, but it will go a long way toward reminding our parents, partners, and civic leaders what kind of dedication Milwaukee’s teachers have to their students, even in the face of overwhelming challenge.
I’m voting yes. Encourage your teacher friends to do the same–and if you have something to give, too, MTEA will appreciate your standing up for our kids.