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Departing teachers sound warning for New Berlin School District

Board members say reaction is to Act 10

June 12, 2012

New Berlin - Fighting back tears, New Berlin West High School math teacher and counselor Jill Werner told the New Berlin School Board, "I'm resigning from a school I dearly love."

She said she is leaving because she, like many other teachers, feels the district doesn't respect teachers. Next fall she'll be at Waukesha North High School, where teachers' opinions are valued, she said.

To put right any misconceptions Werner said, "I'm not leaving for more money, I'll be making less at Waukesha."

She was one of four teachers who sounded a distress call at Monday's board meeting. The teachers said a widespread feeling that they are not valued has touched off a mass exodus.

For example, of the nine special education teachers in her department, seven will have one year or less experience next fall, said teacher Donna Malone.

"I'm scared for our students," she said.

Science teacher Mark Ertmer who has been with the district nine years said this was his last year. Like others he said he feels anger, sadness and disgust that have pushed him to accept a teaching position out of state. He said he understands the need for shared sacrifice because of the economy, but teachers have not been asked to help, they have been dictated to.

"It poisoned what should have been a cooperative and creative environment," he said.

The district is doing nothing to nurture its assets, which is the staff, said Orchard Lane teacher Julie Zimmerman who declined to come back next fall. Instead, people feel beaten down, she said.

The teachers all said after the meeting that they just want the district to reach out to them and value their input.

The upset came about as New Berlin, like other school districts, sought to balance its budget using the so-called "tools" in the state Act 10 passed last summer. Act 10 and other state legislation together stripped public employee unions of nearly all their power to affect pay, working conditions and other critical matters. School districts are replacing employee contracts with employee handbooks.

"I don't know if all this is at us," School Board President David Maxey reacted after the meeting. "I think a lot is at Act 10 and they are upset because we used it.

"But I feel if we didn't use it, we wouldn't be doing what's in the best interest of the district," Maxey said.

Teachers and other staff were consulted in handbook development, he said, and changes were made in response to their input. For example, the dress code calling for professional attire was fleshed out with more specifics, he said. Also, custodians were upset about reductions in vacation time, so a middle ground was found, he said.

Asked if he would change the way he approached the post-contract environment in light of the teachers' statements, Superintendent Joe Garza said, "We're always looking to improve all aspects, this being one of them."

He and the rest of the administrative team will evaluate how to move forward, Garza said, but both he and Maxey adamantly denied that the teacher exodus would harm education.

"There are still many great teachers in our School District," Garza said. "We are attracting quality candidates to be in front of our students."

"We're not finding brand new teachers," Maxey said. "They are leaving other districts and we're taking them in.

"The caliber of people we're finding out there is outstanding," he said.

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