New Berlin - In a meeting where teachers alternatively were cheered and booed, and Gov. Scott Walker's collective bargaining law was shunned and embraced, the school board meeting Monday night encapsulated the drama that continues to surround the role of teachers unions in the state.
At issue was New Berlin's employee handbook, which the board approved in a unanimous vote, but not before teachers spoke about their lack of input in the new document and how the new rules could negatively affect their work and the district's reputation.
The meeting was moved to the Performing Arts Center at New Berlin West Middle/High School, 18695 W. Cleveland Ave., to accommodate crowds that were expected to be much larger than normal. That's in part because of a raucous school board meeting in Greenfield last week where teachers butted heads with the administration and school board members over a new handbook and the issue of collaboration with teachers. Police were called to the scene.
Districts around the state that no longer have collective bargaining agreements with educators have spent this month putting finishing touches on similar handbooks that spell out wages, work rules and benefits. Many have been approved without much fanfare.
Not in New Berlin. On Monday, the auditorium was filled close to its capacity. Some attendees had to hike through athletic fields from overflow parking to get to the meeting. Squad cars were parked outside with lights flashing.
Teachers and union supporters - from New Berlin and other cities - clapped and cheered for their peers. The other half of the audience appeared keen on keeping taxes low and supporting Walker. They cheered when the board approved the handbook.
New Berlin Education Association President Diane Lazewski estimated 200 New Berlin teachers came out to express displeasure with elements of the handbook. She said some of those elements include a longer work day with no extra pay, a reduction in the amount of sick days teachers can accrue, and new rules regarding everything from dress codes to time for teachers to collaborate.
Lazewski said she believes the changes New Berlin put in place are further-reaching than changes in other handbooks approved by Wisconsin districts.
"I would be surprised to see any other handbook as punitive as ours," Lazewski said.
Leslie Potter, a teacher at New Berlin West who left a mechanical engineering career to become a teacher in 1997, told the board the new rules in the handbook required her to work more hours but limited the time she could spend working with students.
She also said it eliminated any reference to prep time for teachers.
"The school board says that they value collaboration," Potter added. "We request that they approach this handbook in the same manner."
After teachers spoke, a citizen took the microphone and said he represented the 5.5 million taxpayers in Wisconsin who were in favor of Walker doing what he was elected to do.
Applause broke out in the auditorium as the teachers and union supporters sat silent. They walked out before the man was finished speaking.
New Berlin School Board member Art Marquardt said the board and administration had spent considerable time on the document.
He said they weren't trying to be punitive, but the environment in Wisconsin has shifted from one in which the union owned the conversation to one in which the elected representatives are now the dominant voice.
That's "hard for some people to swallow," he said.
In some districts working in the new Act 10 environment, where collective bargaining is now mostly limited to cost-of-living wage increases, administrators encouraged their teachers to offer input on various drafts of the handbooks in development.
Other administrators have said discussing changes with teachers could fall under the definition of collective bargaining, which is now illegal under state law for most issues outside of base wage increases.
According to material sent out by New Berlin's union, some of the changes in the new employee handbook include:
A workday that's 60 minutes longer for elementary school and 30 minutes longer at the high school.
A requirement that staff be available to students before and after student schedules for at least 30 minutes per day.
No more pay for substitute teaching during prep time.
No pay for attending meetings related to special education students' education plans before 5 p.m.
$15,000 payout and age 55 retirement has been eliminated.
Limitations on post-retirement health benefits.
Cutting sick leave accrual from 60 to 45 days, and reducing the number of sick days per year.
Twice yearly evaluations with no notice.
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