What kind of district is MPS going to be? Aide benefit question offers a guess at the answer

At its regular monthly meeting last week, the Milwaukee Board of School Directors voted to limit the availability of benefits to non-full time employees of the Milwaukee Public Schools.  

Anyone working under 30 hours a week – and that could be anyone from a cafeteria worker to the paraprofessional assistant in a special-education classroom – would no longer be eligible for health, dental, vision or life insurance, or pension or other retirement benefits.

A statement from MPS last week says this is “another step to ensure the district’s continued financial stability” and that “[s]avings are estimated at roughly up to $4 million per year beginning in 2012-13.”  Savings would presumably be higher in subsequent years, as starting this fall the rule only applies to new hires.  (One of two no votes on the measure, Larry Miller, pushed for a longer grace period than one year for current employees.)

This is on top of a decision last November, in which the Board froze pay (including any step increases for experience) for next several years and significantly jacked up the contribution to any benefits a employee might earn.

The changes approved last week target the district’s least compensated employees, including the stellar folks who keep our schools safe and keep order in some of our roughest classrooms.

These are not the ones we want to hire as cheap labor.  Already, the starting salary for a general aide is just over $11 and hour – better than minimum wage, sure, but hardly the kind of money that will draw Milwaukee’s best applicants.  A safety assistant starts at less than $15 an hour – and they may put their personal safety on the line every day.

And paraprofessionals, who by federal law must have at minimum a two-year degree and pass a rigorous placement exam, start in MPS below $16 an hour. And if you’re hired at MPS today doing one of those jobs, you won’t see a raise for three years.

The Board and Superintendent Dr. Gregory Thornton see all of this as prudent cost-cutting.  In the same statement, Thornton offers this:  “We need to make sure that our district is in the financial condition that will allow us to serve students well into the future.”  Thornton goes on to say that the coming year would involve trying to consolidate part-time positions so that as many people as possible can earn benefits (read: layoffs are coming for part-time aides next summer).

Others of us see this as part of a larger debate over what MPS’ role in this community is.  Thornton started this debate inadvertently when he moved to privatize cafeteria workers in 2010, moving to more centralized food preparation and cutting jobs – and pay for those who remain – in the process.

The Board fought vigorously against that measure (again and again, finally compromising), in part by making clear that MPS doesn’t just serve this community’s children, it also is a provider of good, family-supporting jobs to the adults in this community.  As one of Milwaukee’s largest employers – about 10,000 of Milwaukee’s residents work in or for our schools – the Board argued, MPS has a responsibility to the employees and the community it serves.

However, the recent changes to benefit packages and salary both last November and last week, have been done without that kind of fight from the Board.  (Hmm, I wonder what changed in the last year that made paying a family-supporting wage to school employees harder?)

Peter Blewett, in his last year as member of the Board, is the only one left fighting against the notion that MPS can’t simultaneously become a bad place to work and good place for children to learn.

That so many teachers have left MPS in the last year that no one was laid off despite steep cuts in teaching positions suggests that these changes are having an adverse effect already.  And MPS aides are leaving too, as noted in this profile of the kind of person MPS should want to keep – the kind of person it is going to be harder and harder to keep.

So here it is, the question of what kind of district MPS is going to be:  Is it going to be a good place for adults to work and for kids to learn?  Or can it be a good place to learn even if it’s not a good place for the adults who work there?  I’m afraid we’re going to find out soon enough.

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