Enemies or Allies? . . .
Madison School District employees were given reason for hope last week when the district's school board voted unanimously to open negotiations for a contract that would put employees under a collective bargaining agreement through 2016. With that hope came the inevitable anxiety and fear about what these negotiations would look like and what the results would be. Would we see a repeat of previous negotiations that occurred when bargaining was not conducted on a level playing field? In those negotiations MMSD administration used the power that Act 10 and the threat of ending collective bargaining altogether provide to win concessions from employees.
In this current round of negotiations there are some conditions which are similar, and some differences. We have a new superintendent and a several new board members. The new superintendent has brought with her many new faces in the administration as well. The new administration has also brought new ideas and language that speaks about "flipping the pyramid" and giving more voice to educators and individual schools. This brings proposed changes to budgeting, SIP and other decision making processes.
The same challenges and issues plague our district. The Achievement Gaps, poverty, lack of staff diversity, testing, tight budgets and more are issues that are still with us, and that need to be addressed in multiple ways. The most important continuing condition is that the negotiations are still being held while employees are under significant duress. The impending decision on Act 10 by the Wisconsin Supreme Court is looming, and the outlook for unions with the conservative leaning of the court is bleak. This reality gives the administration a huge advantage, they don't have to give much because the court could rule at any time and simply eliminate the ability of employees to negotiate over anything but a minimal pay raise. There will be those in the community, and maybe even in administration or on the school board, who will call for the district to take full advantage of this and fully utilize the "tools" that Act 10 provides, thus effectively eliminating employee voice in the decision making processes.
Taking that last position would be a huge mistake for our district, its employees and for our community as a whole. Real, honest negotiations need to happen, and Madison School District employees need to continue to work under a
collective bargaining agreement that is truly negotiated in good-faith. It is true that there are many issues facing our district and that these issues are of primary importance. Our school district exists to educate all students in a safe and positive environment. That is its primary purpose and every aspect of the district's policies, budgets and initiatives should go towards achieving the goals associated with educating all students well.
The employees of MMSD are in full agreement with this purpose, it is why we entered the education profession in the first place. It is why educators in Madison, and across the state, put in long hours, continue to develop our own professional knowledge and expertise, and dedicate our lives to our students and our profession. Those who question the dedication and professionalism of educators simply don't understand the level of commitment that education employees have for their students, schools, community and profession.
This professional pride is a huge part of what makes our schools succeed and gives us hope for making further improvements in outcomes for all students. Attacks on education and on public schools are attacks on the educators who work in them. In the same way, attacks on educator unions are attacks on the educators themselves. A union is a collection of individuals acting collectively to accomplish things that they couldn't accomplish alone. While there are those who try to claim that they like educators, but don't like educator unions, the reality is that it is impossible to separate public education employees from their unions and the accompanying collective bargaining agreements.
Handbooks or other employee policies, no matter how cooperatively created or friendly, are employer driven and removed from employee control. Collectively bargained agreements are different at their core from any other type of employee policies. They are a source of security, hope and pride for employees. They represent a level of respect from employers and a recognition that employees have valuable things to offer an organization or company.
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The issues that face our schools exist for many, complicated and societal reasons. Schools alone can't solve these issues. District policies and initiatives alone can't solve these issues. Collective bargaining agreements don't provide the solutions either. Those who claim that unions and contracts are the cause of our educational challenges are ignoring the realities that our schools exist in. Educators, educator unions and collective bargaining aren't the enemy of our students and communities. We are being mislead by those who seek to profit from our schools, profit from our students and who seek to gain political advantages by eliminating the voice of employees in their workplace.
In fact, the exact opposite is true. Unions and collective bargaining are at the very root of a successful democratic, capitalistic society. Unions aren't perfect, but then nothing in society is, or ever will be. Collectively bargained agreements are living documents that change with the times and that represent an effort by all parties to make things better. Like our Constitution they are supposed to provide a vehicle for discussion, rules to govern and make decisions by and to represent a truly democratic process that allows all voices a say in what happens.
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The current climate portrays unions as self-interested, willing to destroy society, and protectors of the incompetent. If we recognize that unions are their members then we are essentially saying that educators are the enemy of education, equity and opportunity. This effort has gotten us to the point where the very existence of public sector unions is in jeopardy.
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Collective bargaining works best in a climate where conversations, discussions and arguments can occur between equal parties. All groups involved have a responsibility to represent their own interests, while at the same time keeping aware of the global perspective. Groups will have different positions, and this is the cornerstone of a democratic process. Eliminating the voices of any group weakens the process and allows for unilateral decision making. While this may streamline decision making and be satisfactory for one perspective, it rarely leads to positive outcomes for the entire group. This is true on a societal level as we are learning here in Wisconsin, and also true in more specific areas like education.
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As we look forward to a new contract for MMSD employees we need to remember that offering alternative ideas and dissenting when initiatives are proposed does not make any group or individual the enemy of education, progress or equity. No single group has all the answers that will solve the significant challenges we face in our public schools. However, ignoring or vilifying the voice of professionals in our schools means that we must discount their experience, training and knowledge that guides our decision making processes. The working conditions for school employees are truly the learning conditions for our students. Professionals in education, no matter what their position, know what is happening in our schools and need to be listened to. We need to have protections in place to allow us to advocate for our students. The collective bargaining process allows educators, administration and the community (through elected school board members, open meetings and public input) a voice in improving our schools.
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The real problems that we face are not unions and collective bargaining. Our real problems are dealing with issues around race, poverty and other bigger societal issues. Collective bargaining represents one vehicle for having a discussion about issues that matter. Professional educators who are respected and protected are able to lead the efforts to address these challenges.
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Our educational professionals and their unions are struggling to protect and improve our public school systems. We are standing up for what we believe to be right for our students, our communities, our profession and ourselves. In the current climate it is vital that this is recognized and respected through a collective bargaining process. We aren't asking for special treatment, just the rights and privileges that our nation was founded on. Collectively bargained agreements won't solve the problems of education, but it will provide needed support for the people who will.
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The Good, The Bad and
The Ugly. . .
The Good . . . The race for Wisconsin Governor is heating up. Wisconsinites need to stay informed and make sure that we are voting based on truth, not on propaganda.
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The Bad . . . The goal of making sure that every student is career and college ready is something important to strive for. However, we need to make sure that being college ready will truly be a positive for our students. The cuts to our universities and colleges are dramatic and will be devastating unless we can reverse the trends.
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The Business Journals
Of course getting a college education can increase earning potential and long term achievement, however, the albatross of student loan debt that hangs around the neck of too many students is crippling to their personal financial success. This is especially true in fields like education where reductions in income mean that many educators are making high student loan payments long into their careers. How can our economy grow when so many of our wage earners are repaying their student loans and not taking our mortgages or otherwise making purchases that should be driving our economic recovery?
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The Ugly . . . The rights that are spelled out in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights apply to all. They represent an effort to find common ground and to unify our nation. Without the compromises that our founders made, America would not have become the nation it is today. Citizens of modern America need to remember this and recognize that living in a diverse society requires compromise and sacrifice for the good of all. Tolerance, empathy and respect are vital to our continued success as a nation.
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