MTI Rally 1 (copy)

Madison Teachers Inc. members march along Fish Hatchery Road as part of a rally demanding better pay, specifically for education assistants, on May 9.

Some Madison Metropolitan School District staff are once again unhappy with district officials over the contracts they were issued for next school year.

The problem, according to a statement from Madison Teachers Inc. Tuesday, is similar to the issue that led to a grievance and lawsuit last year, though it is exacerbated by a mistake the district has acknowledged.

Contracts for the following school year are sent to teachers in May for them to return by mid-June. That means they’re due back before the School Board has approved the preliminary budget, a vote that takes place at the end of June.

District officials say that’s why the contracts, like they did last year, include staff members’ current salaries with language that states it will be added to by longevity increases outlined in the employee handbook and any base wage increase in the budget. Last year was the first time that happened, though, as the district had historically included the longevity increases, known as “steps and lanes,” into the number that is on the contract.

“Last year MMSD issued contracts for the first time in at least 30 years that failed to include the step increase and instead made this increase discretionary until the Board of Education voted to approve the budget,” MTI communications specialist Michelle Michalak wrote in an emailed statement. “As expected, this created significant angst, especially coming off the first year of the pandemic and following MMSD unilaterally eliminating seniority to give more authority to administration to control teacher surplus and layoff.”

This year, the district also included salaries that are lower than what people are currently making on some of the contracts they issued. MMSD spokesman Tim LeMonds wrote in an email Monday that the district was “communicating with staff in regards to the error today, and apologizing for any inconvenience or confusion it has caused.”

“The contracts were issued with incorrect salary information,” LeMonds wrote. “Once we were made aware of this error, we quickly moved to resolve the issue and are currently working to reprint updated contracts. The new contracts will be delivered to staff within the next 24 hours.”

The contracts only including a current salary number leaves staff members in a position to sign with uncertainty over their salaries, with some worrying the district could back away from its current public plans to give the steps and lanes increases and provide at least a 2% base wage increase. The district says that between the two, an average employee will receive a 4% increase to their wages overall.

“MMSD is now forced to issue corrected contracts that still do not list what teachers will be paid next school year,” Michalak wrote. “MMSD has already budgeted for these step increases, they are required by policy, yet MMSD refused to make the commitment to their staff who are engaged in the most challenging school year of their careers.”

Multiple concerns from MTI

MTI is advising employees "to hold onto our contracts for the foreseeable future and not commit to MMSD next year," according to a Facebook post credited to president Michael Jones.

The post mentions multiple concerns that go beyond pay, suggesting they received a contract “that does everything in its power to hedge on the side of not paying us what we’re due.” Other concerns include “mixed signals” on curriculum decisions, the regularity of covering for colleagues when substitute roles aren’t filled and working in non-air conditioned classrooms through an early heat wave.

“And all of it is layered with the fact we have to go to the state to mediate our handbook discussions because we cannot even get agreement on what we can talk about when this has never been questioned before,” Jones wrote. “While some aspects can be addressed directly, we cannot afford to pretend they’re not connected to each other — especially not when we’re on the brink of a labor shortage disaster.”

The union has also pushed in recent weeks for a 4.7% base wage increase, which is the maximum increase districts and unions can bargain over this year, according to the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission.

In its preliminary budget, unveiled late last month, the district included a 2% base wage increase. District administrators and School Board members have noted that the budget is balanced as-is, so any additional spending would need to be offset by taking money out of something else.

And with no increase in the revenue limit from the state budget, the only additional funding the district can use this year comes from the 2020 operating referendum and COVID-19 relief funds, which have specific rules on their usage.

In total, the district's revenue limit, which is the maximum a district can take in from the combination of state aid and local property taxes, is expected to rise by $6 million from last school year. The difference remaining between a 2% and a 4.7% base wage increase is approximately $7 million.

Staff and MTI have pointed to the ongoing staffing shortages and suggested that without a full 4.7% increase — as well as a $5 per hour increase to educational assistant and security staff pay schedules — it will only get worse.

"Teachers and school-based support staff have worked hard explaining to MMSD administration the very real concerns with staffing,” Jones said in the statement. “Instead of showing that they are committed to staff, MMSD issued these bogus contracts without the expected step increase. After this year, each of these disrespectful actions nets a few more resignations as those on the edge decide they've had enough.”

Change in 2021

During last year’s dispute, LeMonds wrote in an email that the change in wording on the contracts was “the result of our district leaders being sensitive to questions posed (in 2020) by Madison Teachers Inc. (MTI), as we worked through the unique circumstances associated with a sustained pandemic.”

“(In fall 2020) … MTI brought to our attention the perception MMSD was in breach of our contract because the 2019-2020 contracts given to staff listed salaries the Board had not yet officially voted to accept,” LeMonds wrote at the time. “It was later determined MMSD administration did not have the authority to include expected salary increases in staff contracts prior to the Board approving the budget through an official vote, as was previous practice.”

The district eventually reissued contracts with a letter further explaining the change, but that did not satisfy MTI.

That disagreement led to a grievance filed with the district in May and a lawsuit in June. The lawsuit, which asked the court to require the district to pay the steps and lanes increases as laid out in the employee handbook, was dismissed in February.

When the School Board discussed the issue at a May 2021 meeting, board members apologized to staff and discussed whether they needed to change any policies or the handbook related to how salaries are presented.

“If we are to limit any kind of confusion moving forward, we definitely want to be as transparent as possible,” board member Maia Pearson said.

Superintendent Carlton Jenkins said at the time that the way they presented the contracts, and the criticism they received, would be a learning experience. Specifically, he spoke to language in the contract that stated the current salary number listed “indicates that you will make no less than your current salary placement in the upcoming year.”

“It wasn’t intended at all to offend anyone, but the language in it could be improved,” Jenkins said. “We can’t be about restorative justice if we can’t take from those lessons ourselves.”

‘Cynicism and despair’

In the statement from Michalak, MTI said that “MMSD administration should listen to their employees.”

“Time and time again this past year employees' concerns went unheeded until public pressure resulted in action,” the statement said. “In these cases, such as the COVID sick leave policy, the employee bonuses, and now these employment contracts, MMSD has eschewed working with MTI until after decisions have been made, often with predictable consequences.

“Instead, they appear more concerned with asserting authority over their employees regardless of what impact that is having on them, their students, or the district's ability to properly staff our schools.”

In the Facebook post, Jones wrote that the ongoing disputes between MTI and district leaders will have a long-term effect, with people leaving not only for more money in other jobs.

“And with each disagreement, each subtle or overt sign of disrespect, each leader’s insistence that every employee in Madison is replaceable with someone younger and more eager to absorb disrespect from an abusive system for less money, we are losing valuable people,” Jones wrote. “We’re losing them to cynicism and despair, to a calcifying belief that this is how it’s always going to be in Madison from now on.”

He called it more than “just a fight for better pay and better treatment.”

“It’s a fight for that simple belief that we can make a positive difference in each other’s lives,” Jones wrote. “And if you willingly choose saving dollars over people, choose liability over truth, and choose catchphrases over substance, then we aren’t just talking about losing scholars and families and employees — we’re talking about losing what makes our community our community.”

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