Teachers from the Elmbrook School District joined thousands of other protesters at the state Capitol in Madison last weekend, rallying against Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to limit collective-bargaining rights for public employees.
And while many Elmbrook teachers headed to Madison after Thursday's early-release school day or over the weekend, the district is investigating whether its higher-than-normal number of absences during the day Friday was connected to the rally in Madison.
If those absences were unexcused, those teachers who weren't in class Friday could face disciplinary action, said Chris Hedstrom, Elmbrook's assistant superintendent of human resources.
No major disruptions
The Elmbrook Education Association and district administrators sat down last week, and the district decided to allow teachers to travel to Madison after Thursday's early-release day.
Normally, teachers participate in professional development activities or collaborative time after the school day Thursday, but the district allowed them to head to the Capitol during that time "in exchange for a normal school day" that day, Superintendent Matt Gibson said.
Janelle Geyser, a teacher at Wisconsin Hills Middle School and president of the teachers union, said much of the work planned for Thursday afternoon could be rescheduled. Teachers will not have to make up the time they missed that day, Hedstrom said.
Teacher attendance Wednesday and Thursday was normal, Gibson said, and it was "almost normal" Friday. Geyser said some teachers decided to go to Madison on Friday, too, "but that was not a districtwide initiative."
Principals still are trying to determine the number of teacher absences Friday and whether any of those absences were unexcused. Teachers who had unexcused absences will face disciplinary action, but Hedstrom said she couldn't go into detail.
A large number of teacher absences caused some school districts - including Milwaukee, Madison and others - to shut down last week and early this week. Gibson said that wasn't necessary in Elmbrook.
"That's the hallmark of professionalism, if they're here doing their jobs even though their benefits and collective bargaining are being tested," he said.
Bargaining the big issue
The union has met with teachers to discuss "what things were covered in (Walker's) budget-repair bill and what it would mean personally to them," Geyser said. Teachers were encouraged to share their opinions with legislators via phone calls or e-mails.
Walker's proposal calls for public workers to pay a greater share of their health-care and pension expenses, but the effects of losing collective-bargaining power could be much broader, Geyser said, explaining that if collective bargaining is eliminated, teachers will no longer be able to negotiate parameters on class size, termination processes, curriculum development or other aspects of their jobs.
"For us, that is the greater concern," she said. "Are we worried about the financial aspect? Of course."
Geyser said teachers and other public employees "just want to be at the table when benefits are discussed."
Contract talks on hold
Walker's proposal - as well as the uncertainty behind aspects of his biennial budget, which is expected to be released March 1 - has delayed negotiations between the teachers union and the district on the teachers' next contract, which starts July 1.
The two sides in November reached an agreement on the 2009-11 contract after nearly two years of negotiations. The contract expires June 30, and if a new agreement isn't in place before then, teachers will continue to operate under the current terms.
Geyser said the union already has worked with the district on some facets of the upcoming contract, including the 2011-12 school year calendar, which was approved Tuesday. But it's tough to get into in-depth negotiations with a murky financial picture.
"We're trying to do things that we can, not knowing what the financial picture is (going to be)," she said.
Gibson said aspects of Walker's proposal could "have a very positive impact on our budget gap" if they're passed, but those impacts could be mitigated from a reduction in taxing authority that could be part of the biennial budget.
The district would like to start negotiating the 2011-13 contract in mid-March, Hedstrom said, but Elmbrook needs answers from the state first.
"The big question for us is: What will the revenues look like, and what will the union rights in terms of negotiations look like?" she said.
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