Rally against Walker V

Teachers marched on the Capitol Square Nov. 19, 2011, at a rally to support the recall of Gov. Scott Walker.

The leadership of Madison Teachers Inc. is letting its membership know it has unearthed yet another reason to recall Gov. Scott Walker.

In its weekly “Solidarity!” newsletter that was mailed out Friday, the union warns how administrative rules recently released by the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission related to the implementation of Act 10 could result in teachers’ pay being cut.

“This is causing a lot of angst,” says John Matthews, executive director of MTI.

“This could be very bad for teachers,” adds state Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts, D-Middleton, who sits on the Assembly's Committee on Education. “These rules allow for teachers’ base pay to be redefined, and I think that’s absurd.”

The roots of this story reach back to last summer, when Act 10 eliminated most public employees’ ability to collectively bargain over virtually anything except “base wages.” Even then, workers are limited to bargaining over raises that can’t exceed the consumer price index (CPI), unless voters approve a hike via a referendum.

After receiving requests to explain what “base wages” could be bargained over, the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC) -- a state agency designed to settle labor disputes -- worked on rules to clarify the matter.

Judith Neumann, a WERC commissioner who was working on those rules, describes in this memorandum how in developing the proposed rules, it was recognized that for most workers, “wages were a function of length of service and/or various educational or licensure increments.”

The trouble was meshing this fact with Act 10, which doesn’t allow for taking into account such add-ons. The rules originally drafted by the WERC, writes Neumann, “resolved the conundrum by distinguishing between the initial calculation of base wages and the subsequent calculations” for cost-of-living increases. In these rules from the WERC, the “initial calculation would have built on the platform of preexisting, lawfully negotiated actual wages,” while subsequent calculations would not.

But when these rules were forwarded to the Walker administration for the green light, they were returned to the WERC for a do-over. The rules were then re-worked in a manner that could curb pay increases for teachers and some other classifications of public workers by not counting add-ons in “base pay” calculations. This version of the rules was given the OK by the Walker administration in late March. At that time, Neumann filed her strongly worded document explaining her dissenting vote on this issue.

It’s these finalized rules regarding “base wage” calculations that have many teachers fuming.

The pay of most teachers, including those in Madison, is determined by using a grid that takes into account years of experience in addition to add-ons such as advanced degrees and additional college credits. Although teachers’ years of experience will be counted in determining “base pay” for future cost-of-living pay increases, the final WERC rules dictate most other add-ons will not be.

The newsletter mailed to MTI members explains how this might play out, noting a Madison teacher with a master’s degree and 12 years of experience (Track 4, Level 16 on this Madison schools salary chart) is paid $54,985 per year under the current pay schedule. If one assumes a 3 percent increase in the CPI, the teacher in this example would “need a salary increase to $56,635 to maintain the same standard of living,” the MTI newsletter states.

“However, the new WERC rule defines the ‘base pay’ not as the current salary ($54,985), but the salary this teacher would have received without the pay additive recognizing the achievement of additional educational credits.” So under the WERC rules this teacher’s base pay could be recognized as $51,497 -- or $3,488 less than the teacher’s current pay.

When applying a 3 percent CPI increase to this rate, MTI states the teacher in this example would receive a new salary of $53,042 -– which “could actually result in a pay cut of $1,943.” Those most harmed by these WERC rules would be teachers who have earned the most educational add-ons.

Matthews notes MTI has a contract with the Madison schools through the 2012-13 academic year, so wages are set through that time. And even after a district’s contract is up and Act 10 and the WERC rules go into effect, he says school districts still could -- and, he believes, should -- provide bonuses for add-ons such as additional education.

Nonetheless, the MTI newsletter article concludes: “Just one more reason to recall!”

Although others have also reported concerns that these rules could be used to decrease a teacher's take-home pay, not everyone is interpreting the new WERC rules in the same way.

“There’s a lot of chaos and uncertainty around the interpretation of these emergency rules -- and unfortunately that is par for the course when it comes to Gov. Walker’s policies and divisive approach to governing,” Christina Brey, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state's largest teachers union, said in an email to the Cap Times.

But Brey says WEAC believes that, under the new rules, school districts will be required to keep teachers' pay at current levels before factoring in cost-of-living increases using a base wage that doesn't factor in qualifications such as advanced degrees or additional education.

Although this analysis still could lead to a financial hit against teachers by reducing the amount available for cost-of-living wage increases, the WEAC interpretation would not lower a teacher's base pay.

Matthews says WEAC’s interpretation is “just plain wrong” and possibly “wishful thinking.” He adds that the MTI newsletter article explaining how Madison teachers will be hurt was put together after listening to WERC general counsel Peter Davis explain the new rules on Thursday.

Either way, the undisputed impact is that the amount of pay increases that can be negotiated is smaller than if current actual pay figures were used.

Attempts to get comment and clarification on this topic from the WERC went unanswered, as did a message left with Walker’s office.

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