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UPDATED: Elmbrook Teachers Heartbroken: "We Have Been Silenced"

Superintendent Matt Gibson says district still will include teachers in decision-making, but the union president says many teachers feel "our voice has been cut off."

Elmbrook Superintendent Matt Gibson said Thursday despite the state's removal of most collective bargaining rules, the district will involve teachers in decision-making and they should not fear an "extreme" increase in their health care contributions.

But the teachers union president said the sweeping changes were "heartbreaking, stomach wrenching."

"Many of us feel like we have been silenced, that our voice has been cut off," said Janelle Geyser, president of the Elmbrook Education Association.

Teacher absences were normal Thursday and there was no word of any job actions.

But Gibson said he was hearing from  before they were ready to do so due to fears about reduced future retirement benefits.

He said he was telling teachers to follow their head and heart.

"I hate to see them go," Gibson said. "I don't encourage them to go. I encourage them to just make a personal decision."

Geyser said teachers were anxious about what will happen when their two-year union contract expires June 30.

"Fifty years of labor rights have been terminated," she said. "What will happen to salary schedule, etc? The landscape is shifting so rapidly it is impossible to make any kind of prediction as to what our future will look like.

"This is a setback, but we will press forward," Geyser said. "We will continue to support each other and our students, tell our stories, write our letters, attend the rallies and not give up."

Gibson for Gov. Scott Walker's fiscal reforms that give school districts and local governments authority to shift more of their mounting health and pension costs to public workers.

But Gibson said he never advocated for eliminating collective bargaining over non-fiscal matters. 

"I support restricting the economic provisions of collective bargaining," he said. "I wasn't advocating for the elimination of collective bargaining. I think there's really value in collective bargaining within financial restraints."

The net effect of the governor's proposals to cut school districts' expenses and revenues, however, is a loss of $1.1 million to Elmrook. That raises Elmbrook's projected existing deficit of $2.7 million to $3.8 million for the 2011-12 school year.

The changes — passed 18-1 by the state Senate Wednesday and 53-42 by the state Assembly Thursday — means that when the teachers contract expires June 30, the only issue that teachers can negotiate is future annual wage increases that would be capped by the consumer price index, currently about 1.5 percent.

All the rest of the master agreement — including language on retirement and health benefits, work assignments and more — would be moot.

Unionized state workers would be required to contribute 12.6 percent of their health care premiums. But the state can not dictate what local school districts and governments require their workers to pay if they are not in the state's health care system. 

"We haven't had any conversations at all" about how much Elmbrook will require its teachers to pay toward health care, Gibson said.

But he said: "I'm trying to allay fears that we will go an extreme level, that we may go further than what the governor is suggesting at 12.6 percent."

Teachers currently pay 3 percent of their health premiums and administrators pay 10 percent.

On pension, the Elmbrook district pays 100 percent of both the employee and employer contributions to the state pension plan, but Wednesday's vote would mean teachers would start paying 5.8 percent of the employee share.

Gibson said teachers should not fear being shut out of the process in the future.

"I don't envisioning chaos after July 1," he said.

As school districts and local governments statewide struggle with how to replace the collective bargaining system that has been in place for 52 years, Gibson suggested two possible options for Elmbrook's future.

One idea would be for the district to look at the existing master agreement, "start there and see what you can sustain, what would be legal and sustainable."

Another idea would be "envisioning what a great work environment would be and starting more with a blank sheet of paper," Gibson said. 

"I've tried to reassure teachers that if it's up to me that we will be very collaborative with them with mutual give and take, within financial parameters that work," he said.

"I envision a structure that might resemble a meet and conference - to have meetings that would talk about salary and benefits and working conditions," he said, adding: "But I don't know how that would work yet."

The seven-member School Board has the final say on teacher working conditions and salary and benefits. And the board has yet to talk about these issues, although that they would remain a valued part of the decision-making process.

Marla Kalfayan, chairwoman of a new lobbying group called Alliance for Elmbrook Education, had urged legislators to not lower school districts' revenue caps, which limit the amount of school property taxes that can be collected.

The governor's next biennial budget - which was not included in Wednesday's Sentate vote - proposes a 5.5 percent cut in districts' revenue authority. 

Kalfayan asked State Sen. Rich Zipperer on his Facebook page if lawmakers could amend the proposal to phase in the 5.5 percent cut over the two years.

"This would allow more time to plan for cuts in the second year," she said, echoing a position Gibson mentioned at Tuesday's School Board meeting.

"In Elmbrook School District's case, it would be a total cut of $647 per student with $323.50 occurring in each of the two years," Kalfayan wrote. "With the cuts being spread over two years, we would be able to curb the need for such a large layoff of teaching staff, and a dramatic increase in class sizes."

Lynne R March 14, 2011 at 03:46 PM
I just want to thank the teachers of the Elmbrook School District for their ongoing professionalism throughout this contentious ordeal. Regardless of where anyone falls on this issue -- most agree that the process has been horrendous -- with bullying and domination replacing leadership, statemanship, and collaboration. Yet, our teachers have been there, day-in and day-out, continuing to give our kids their best. If our district could still make the future win-win for our dedicated teachers and the taxpayers, everyone -- and especially our kids, who represent EVERYONE'S future -- will be the better for it. Respectfully submitted, Lynne Roy
Mark March 14, 2011 at 06:56 PM
No bullying a fair and open debate like obama care. well I mean no death threats or signs calling our govonor hitler or out of town paid protesters or graffatti on buildings. I agree how ever that its great the teachers stayed on the job. I hope they do get more money by not having to pay dues and being forced to buy health care from the unions at a higher than market price, I hope teachers get paid more for doing a better job than by just hanging around on tenure as they do on the current bad contracts. teachers should be paid more for performance not because a union makes us pay them more
Bud Tuglie March 22, 2011 at 06:11 PM
Teachers, you haven't been silenced. You still have a voice. The proof of that is that your comments are published here. What is gone is the power that was abused by your union in your name. Blame your union thugs for that. TOO BAD!! I agree with Mark's 3/14/2011 comment.

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