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Madison Metropolitan School District offices are located within the Doyle building at 545 W. Dayton St., Madison.

Madison School Board members expressed interest in increasing pay for Madison Metropolitan School District staff members Monday night, two weeks ahead of their vote on the preliminary budget.

The 2022-23 budget as proposed by MMSD administration in April included fully funding increases for years of experience and professional development, known as “steps and lanes,” as well as a 2% cost-of-living increase, below the 4.7% maximum they are allowed to negotiate up to with Madison Teachers Inc.

MTI has asked for the full 4.7% both in negotiations with the district and in public demonstrations since the release of that preliminary budget draft. The union is also asking for a $5 an hour salary schedule increase for hourly staff members like special education assistants and security assistants.

The difference between the 2% and 4.7% base wage increase is about $7 million, and MMSD chief financial officer Ross MacPherson told the board the hourly pay increase would cost about $3.3 million.

Board members stressed they were hearing the voices of staff and community members, some of whom spoke during public comment Monday, and wanted to do what they could to improve pay.

“Like my colleagues … I know that there is a lot of interest in making sure that any opportunity that we have to use funds toward our employees to retain as well as attract is something that we want to prioritize,” Nichelle Nichols said. “I know there’s more to come on that but I just wanted to state that.”

District officials and MTI have negotiated in mostly closed meetings in recent weeks over the base wage increase, which is the only item they are allowed to negotiate over since Act 10’s implementation. That 2011 law effectively gutted collective bargaining rights for most public sector employees.

The $5 an hour increase to the salary schedule for hourly workers is part of the Employee Handbook, which is not negotiated but instead established through a handbook committee with final changes approved by the board.

Those separate processes and the closed-door nature of the MTI negotiations made Monday’s budget discussion somewhat complex, with many of the comments more general than specific.

“While we may be looking at other areas to address in the budget outside of base wage, because we’re currently in that process right now, any other adjustments we would like to discuss around compensation, we need to be a little careful what we discuss in open session,” MacPherson said.

Board president Ali Muldrow, who has a conflict of interest in discussing teacher salaries as her husband is a teacher, commented only on the hourly workers’ pay rate Monday, but indicated she strongly supports an increase.

“I’m really deeply vested in our ability to substantially shift how we’re compensating hourly wage workers,” Muldrow said. “I’d really like to see our board get behind as great of an increase as possible so that folks are making a living wage when they are SEAs, when they are security assistants, when they are secretaries.”

MacPherson acknowledged earlier in the meeting that the administration is “investigating options” on how to increase hourly pay rates, but did not go into details. He and some board members also emphasized the difficult nature of this budget, which has much more money than most years because of the influx of federal COVID-19 relief funding.

“We have the largest single, one-time source of funding coming into the district that we’re being asked to spend in a very short timeframe,” MacPherson said. “You get the money once and once you spend it, it’s gone.”

That makes counting on it for operational funds that will repeat year after year — like a salary increase — dangerous, he and others said.

“Figuring out how to balance the desire and the need to support staff with being fiscally responsible for the budget years that are coming down the road is a really difficult balance,” board member Christina Gomez Schmidt said. “We really don’t know what increase (in the next state budget) we’re going to get.”

The other four districts in the state’s “big five” school districts have all already approved the maximum 4.7% cost-of-living pay increase, however.

Board member Laura Simkin said she felt “a very strong commitment from the board to be putting as much money into the staffing costs for staff that are directly touching what’s happening in the classrooms.” She also suggested through an amendment proposal to create a bonus structure for staff, saying Monday it could be based on the substitute fill rate and vacancy rates each quarter.

“Any unused money that is in the budget for salary that is not used in a particular quarter gets allocated for bonuses for staff that are working,” Simkin explained. “If we’re at full capacity for our staff, some of that pressure is relieved, and when we’re not, the bonuses are coming their way.”

Board member Savion Castro echoed the other board members’ interest in finding a way to increase pay.

“I fully support all of our efforts to really scrape together everything so that we can better compensate our staff for the work they can do,” Castro said.

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