Teachers vote against concessions

In a letter sent to its membership and to the media today MTEA president Bob Peterson said that more than 52 percent of teachers voted against concessions and as a result the union will not re-open talks with Milwaukee Public Schools in an effort to ease the number of teacher layoffs.

“The survey showed that 52.4% of the membership opposed additional concessions and 47.5% favored them,” reads the letter. “Based on the results and the many thoughtful comments, the Executive Board decided to not pursue any additional concessions.”

Thornton asked Peterson on June 27 to open talks on possible concessions, most notably pension contributions, that could trim the layoffs of 354 MPS teachers (of 519 total layoffs) caused by cuts in state aid to the district. Estimates were that the concessions could have cut the number of teacher layoffs by about 200.

The union sent out a survey to teachers earlier this month on whether or not they supported concessions and Thornton then wrote an open letter to MTEA membership on the subject.

Peterson told me this afternoon that although the union certainly knows how many members responded, it’s not in the habit of releasing the details of membership surveys and that even releasing the percentages of pro and con responses is atypical.

“Generally when the teacher bargaining team does surveys, they don’t disclose anything they just take it under advisement,” he said. “This time because of the importance of the survey and the high interest on the part of the membership , they released the percentages. So, my response, and this is per the directions of the bargaining, team, is not to give out the actual numbers.”

But, he said, the response was large enough to suggest that the survey captured the wishes of the union’s membership and also, he says, provides a snapshot of the internal struggles of individual members.

“We got an excellent response,” said Peterson, who leaves tonight for this weekend’s SOS March and conference in Washington, D.C. “So high that the leadership felt extremely confident that the survey results really reflected the membership.

“A five percent difference on one had is significant, but on the other hand certainly less of a difference than many people might have anticipated. What it says to me is that teachers are really struggling with the difficult situation that we’re in. On the one hand feeling we’ve been scapegoated, vilified and not responsible for the creating this mess that the state finds itself in, and on the other hand realizing that their colleagues are being laid off, that kids’ schools are having less and less adults in them. People feel really mixed.”

Peterson added that some laid off teachers commented that the union should not make concessions and that some teachers who have not been laid off supported concessions.

Shortly after the letter emerged, Thornton responded in his blog:

“We had such hope. Today’s news is deeply disappointing,” he wrote. “We continue to look for opportunities to restore programs and services for students. As we have stated previously, with the budget challenges as they are, restoration of programs, and certainly the restoration of the jobs of any of the 519 employees laid off in June, will require the discovery of new money to the district, including funds from sources such as union concessions.

We are determined to continue to forge a partnership with our teachers that will yield the best outcomes for children. We will be prepared for the start of classes Monday for year-round schools, and September 1 for all remaining MPS schools. We will be prepared to serve our students and families.”

Peterson said that even though contract concessions are off the table now – in part because the 90-day period allowed by the budget for such talks will soon expire – the union and the district will continue to collaborate on a number of projects related to curriculum and professional development.

“We’re working very closely on a whole host of things,” he said. “that will enhance and improve the collaboration more than its been perhaps ever before in the district. We are rolling out, for example, a new teacher evaluation system that is probably more thorough and rigorous than many districts in the state and we’re doing that in a very collaborative fashion and that’s happening as we speak.

“We look forward to working very closely with the administration on those issues of teaching and learning.”

Here is the text of Peterson’s letter in its entirety:

“I want to personally thank the many members who responded to the concessions/layoff survey. As President, I believe in genuine membership input and hope the survey strengthens the democratic culture of our union.

“The survey showed that 52.4% of the membership opposed additional concessions and 47.5% favored them. Based on the results and the many thoughtful comments, the Executive Board decided to not pursue any additional concessions.

“The comments – both those in favor and against concessions – show how passionately our members feel about the children and youth that we teach.

“A number of people expressed concerns about our laid-off colleagues, and believe we should do whatever possible to save teachers’ jobs.

“Others worried about the impact of the layoffs on teaching and learning conditions.

“Some pointed out that making further concessions hurts the district’s ability to attract and retain quality teachers for the difficult job of teaching in MPS.

“The comments also reflected the strong distrust people have for Governor Walker and the Republican-dominated Legislature.

“Many people noted how the district continues to hire high-paid administrators and to create positions that are not directly serving children.

“Undoubtedly, some critics of public education will use the survey to continue their scapegoating of teachers and our union. We know we did not create the financial crisis in the state. We did not cut over $80 million from MPS. We did not create the unfair state funding system that has underfunded MPS for decades. Nor did we create the private voucher program that takes $50 million from MPS annually.

“What we did do was save the district tens of millions of dollars in the next two years through our concessionary contract negotiated last fall.

“In these difficult times, we need to renew our commitment to do what we do best: teach our students well and help ensure the best possible future for our children. We understand that quality education is essential to a vibrant community. We will deepen our work with parent and community groups to build a stronger movement to fight for adequately funded, quality public education. In turn, we must also strengthen our involvement in broader community issues such as restrictions on the right to vote and cuts in social services.

“We also need to recognize that the new conditions in our state require us to do things very differently. Contracts for MPS substitutes, bookkeepers and educational assistants end next June. The teacher contract ends in June 2013. New voucher and charter schools will draw additional students out of MPS.

“We must substantially improve our union’s structures – to increase both union democracy and our political effectiveness. I encourage you to get involved in your union: engage in political action, build ties with parents and community, and speak out on curricular and professional issues.

“I hope the energy of the protests this past spring in Madison and the enthusiastic involvement of MTEA members in the upcoming recall elections will continue to inspire us in the work ahead.

“As your President, I will do everything I can to protect and lead our union in these difficult times, and I ask for your help and your involvement.”

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