The Elmbrook School Board adopted a new employee handbook without the teacher protests seen in some districts — a testament to the professionalism of staff and district's collaborative efforts, leaders say.
And interest in Elmbrook teaching positions remains high, with as many as 378 applicants for one first-grade opening at Dixon Elementary, said Kristi Foy, district human resources director and staff counsel.
When the first school bell rings Thursday morning, some of the biggest changes will be seen at the front of the classroom.
After a record wave of nearly 60 retirements last spring, 43 newly hired full-time teachers will greet students, Foy said Tuesday.
"We definitely had an amazing response to our (job) postings, which is flattering and shows people recognize we are a desirable district," she said.
A second-grade opening at Swanson drew 356 applicants. And a last-minute posting on Aug. 24 and 25 to hire a Burleigh teacher drew 274 applicants.
The interest comes despite the fact that new and veteran teachers will soon have less take-home pay, fewer sick leave accruals and redesigned Elmbrook health plans with higher deductibles.
Some of those changes were adopted last week when the Elmbrook School Board approved a "work-in-progress" employee handbook without the protests seen in districts such as New Berlin and Greenfield.
"We worked pretty closely with our teachers on it," Superintendent Matt Gibson said Tuesday. "They were in the audience when it was approved. They appeared accepting of it. I credit that to the relationship we had with them prior to the budget repair bill and the processing we were willing to do."
Gibson applauded teachers union leaders as "phenomenal."
He said district teachers in general "are coming back with a constructive attitude, wanting to be the best they can be."
That's not to say they like the "major" changes caused by the state's budget repair bill, also known as Act 10, that swept away teachers' collective bargaining rights, Gibson said.
Union agreements formerly covered everything from teachers pay and benefits to school schedules, extra stipends for coaching and activities, sick leave and retirement benefits, and more.
Districts instead are approving employee handbooks to cover working conditions, economic and non-economic.
Elmbrook's handbook contains two major changes to the 2009-2011 teachers union contract that expired June 30:
- It reduces the number of sick days accrued in a year from 10 to 15 down to seven, that is expected to save about $16,000. Employees can carry over unused sick days but the bank can not exceed 90 days. Unused sick days are not cashed out at retirement and are only used for time off.
- It changes the district's disability benefit to state it will replace a disabled employee's income by 67 percent, rather than the current 90 percent. That would save about $60,000.
There are more changes for teachers and district staff:
- Salaries are frozen for the start of the school year. "We froze everybody at last year's salary," Foy said.
- Take-home pay, however, will go down. Starting on Sept. 15 paychecks, teachers who work 10 months will see deductions of 5.8 percent for their pension accounts and 12.6 percent for health insurance premiums. Currently, teachers pay three percent toward premiums and nothing toward pensions.
- Those paycheck changes will start Friday for administrators and staff who work 12-month schedules.
- Coaching and extracurricular activity stipends will remain the same as detailed in the teachers contract that expired June 30.
- The long-standing teacher pay schedule setting minimum salaries based on years of service and educational degrees, with step and lane advancements, is wiped away under Act. 10. How to compensate teachers will be the subject of future handbook discussion by the School Board and committees that will include teacher input.
Under Act 10, Elmbrook's teachers union could recertify its organization so it could bargain on one issue: wage increases that would be capped by CPI. Foy said the state still has not released that CPI cap amount.
Act 10 prohibits school districts from granting base wage increases in excess of CPI to union-represented employees. But Act 10 does not prohibit districts from giving higher raises to employees not represented by a union.
That could incentivize some unions to decertify, to give their members the possibility of higher raises, Foy said. Not that districts have extra money available, she noted. Many issues are still being reviewed by lawyers, and groups are trying to overturn Act. 10 in court.
"It's baptism by fire," Foy said of the changes. "We're all learning and learning from each other."
The Board plans to create committees with teacher input to study future changes to compensation, teacher evaluation and grievances and retiree benefits.
"It's a new opportunity to have more open dialog with our employees," Foy said. "Hopefully we'll continue to have good working relationships."
School Board President Tom Gehl last week praised union leaders and all staff for their professionalism through the difficult time.
He said some people have said the board is working too fast to make too many changes, while others say the board is not doing enough.
"I’d like to think we’ve acted out of financial prudence and yet with care and caution," Gehl said. "Municipalities and school districts have far more of a hammer in their hands than they ever did before. We’re trying to use that hammer to fashion and to build, and not to smash anything."