East HS Teacher Walk Out 052722 06-05272022164014 (copy)

Teachers walk out of Madison East High School in support of a larger base wage increase than what the Madison Metropolitan School District is offering.

Madison Teachers Inc. and Madison Metropolitan School District officials are about $7 million apart in their wage proposals.

MTI and its members have suggested this spring that the 2% increase the district is offering for salaries is not enough and will have many staff members looking for work elsewhere, furthering an already challenging staffing environment in schools. They have held multiple rallies and created a petition to garner community support for their position.

The district, meanwhile, claims it doesn’t have the money to make the full 4.7% increase allowed by the state sustainable amid dropping enrollment and a tight state budget for school districts. MTI maintains they do have the funds.

Below, the Cap Times explains the numbers behind the disagreement and looks at what other districts are doing.

What is the “base wage” and why are they negotiating over that?

Act 10 limited the power of most public sector labor unions in Wisconsin in 2011, restricting their collective bargaining power to base wage pay changes.

Each year, MMSD and MTI engage in closed session bargaining over the subject. Their proposals are capped to a percentage set by the state’s Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission.

This year, amid high rates of inflation, the WERC set the cap at 4.7%. 

The base wage increase is included as part of the annual budget process. The School Board will approve a preliminary budget at the end of this month, but could adjust the wages before final budget approval in October — after staff will have already begun working for the new school year.

Such a change has happened in years past, including as recently as 2019, when the board approved a smaller base wage increase in the summer but increased it that fall after the state budget was approved.

What are MMSD’s financial challenges?

MMSD undoubtedly faces a challenging budget cycle, with enrollment dropping and a revenue limit freeze from the state Legislature limiting how much it can raise between property taxes and state aid.

Because of the successful 2020 operating referendum, the district can add $9 million to its revenue limit for 2022-23, putting it $6 million above the 2021-22 revenue limit. Without that referendum, the revenue limit would have decreased, forcing cuts.

The current budget proposal uses that additional revenue limit space, along with COVID-19 relief funding, to fund the 2% base wage increase, along with fully funding the “steps and lanes” increases for longevity and educational attainment. That provides another 2% increase for the average employee, according to the district, though the union has said that many employees would not receive any increase through that mechanism.

While there are large amounts of one-time funding through federal COVID-19 relief, officials have stressed they want to avoid creating fiscal cliffs in which they fund ongoing expenses with dollars that will not be available in future years.

Does the district have the money?

Put simply: yes, at least for next year, but district officials worry about what could happen beyond 2022-23.

As superintendent Carlton Jenkins has said repeatedly, a budget is a document of priorities, and the initial 2022-23 budget proposal instead prioritizes a variety of other initiatives through COVID-19 relief funding.

The district is spending $41.63 million of those dollars on nearly 100 items ranging from HVAC improvements and new curriculum to mental health supports and educational technology.

Officials have said that meeting the 4.7% ask would require cutting 87 positions next year. And if they used COVID relief funding, it’s possible they could face a challenge to maintain or increase base wages a year from now in the 2023-24 budget.

“MMSD takes very seriously, both its responsibility to be good fiscal stewards for our taxpayers, and appropriately valuing our world-class staff,” spokesman Tim LeMonds wrote in an email. “In order to prioritize both of these important responsibilities, it is essential we have sustainability in our budgetary planning into the future.

“As we have seen with recent regressive state funding for public education, there are no assurances future state budgets will make up any difference between what we spend now, using one-time funds, and what will be needed to sustain those operational costs once these grants run out.”

The district’s fund balance serves as a mechanism to avoid short-term borrowing, demonstrate a strong fiscal position and cover any unexpected costs. That fund increased from $61.2 million at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year to $90.8 million by the end of the 2020-21 school year, as some costs ended up below expectations amid the uncertainties of the pandemic.

The district spent nearly $10 million out of its fund balance in the 2021-22 school year, but is budgeting to spend only $1.7 million for 2022-23, leaving it with a projected balance of $79.2 million by the end of next school year.

What are other districts doing?

MMSD is part of the state’s “big five” school districts, along with Milwaukee Public Schools, Kenosha Unified School District, Racine Unified School District and the Green Bay Area Public School District.

Each has already voted on or built their budget proposal around the maximum 4.7% increase that they are allowed to bargain for with their employee unions.

The school boards in Milwaukee, Green Bay, Kenosha and Racine have all voted for a 4.7% increase before having a preliminary budget vote this spring.

LeMonds wrote that “the closest in comparison” to MMSD, as far as budgets go, is MPS, given its design for steps and lanes advancements, though Kenosha and Racine both have salary schedule advancements for teachers, as well. MPS had an $87 million operating referendum approved in spring 2020, while MMSD’s was $33 million phased in over four years, he added.

“In addition, unanticipated costs related to the pandemic considerably depleted our operations referendum funds,” LeMonds wrote.

How does MMSD staff pay rate among districts?

According to a state Department of Public Instruction database, the average MMSD teacher pay is the 56th highest in the state.

The $62,882 average puts MMSD behind Milwaukee and Kenosha but ahead of Racine and Green Bay among the “big five.”

Its highest salary, $94,616, is ranked 21st in the state while its lowest teacher salary of $40,778 is 209th. The district’s average fringe benefits for teachers, valued at $23,308, rank 251st among districts.

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