Madison education leaders view Gov. Scott Walker’s new condition for per-pupil state aid as a political move that ultimately erodes local control.
In his state budget address on Wednesday, Walker said Wisconsin is “investing more money into public education than ever before.” While past state budgets led to deep funding cuts for public schools, the new proposal allots an additional $200 dollars per student in the 2017-2018 school year and an additional $404 in 2018-2019.
Walker’s proposal would amount to an additional $16 million for MMSD over the next two years.
However, distribution of additional per-pupil aid is now contingent upon school districts mandating their employees pay at least 12 percent of their own health insurance costs. The new condition is reminiscent of language in Act 10 — Walker's controversial law that stripped collective bargaining rights from most public employees — which requires state employees pay 12 percent of their health insurance costs if they are insured by the state’s provider.
Although MMSD employees are not insured under the state’s insurance plan, the 2017-2019 budget would still mandate district employees pay 12 percent of their costs.
Currently, MMSD covers a significant portion of premiums for its staff, based on salary. Lower-paid employees pay 1.5 percent, while higher-paid staff contribute 10 percent. Between employees and their families, MMSD insures 11,500 people and spends $61 million annually to cover costs.
Tony Evers, state superintendent of public instruction, said individual school boards are in the best position to make coverage decisions for their employees.
"Paying 88 percent of health care costs might be a magic number to some, but I’m not sure it is for every school district or for every individual employee," Evers said. "School boards are best positioned to address employment issues, not the state."
Doug Keillor, executive director of Madison Teachers Inc., the union that represents teachers and other staff who work in the schools, said in a statement that “the Governor appears to be focused on settling old political scores.”
Walker should “focus his attention on state government and not micromanaging the compensation policies of the Madison Metropolitan School District,” Keillor said.
He added that the elected Madison School Board is in the best position to address MMSD’s benefits strategy, and MTI will continue partnering with the district to improve outcomes.
“We are engaged in serious work with the school district to attract, support and retain the best teachers and support staff we can in order to provide Madison's students the best education possible,” Keillor said.
School Board member Ed Hughes said the board’s response to the budget will prioritize the needs of teachers and students.
“Gov. Walker doesn’t seem to like how we work together with our teachers,” Hughes said. “Whatever rules they set, we’ll keep collaborating to find a response that respects our teachers and benefits our students.”
In a statement shared with MMSD staff on Wednesday, Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said the budget condition was "an unnecessary proposal to remove local control in our budget making decisions." She said the district is "proud of the way that we have worked together with our employees in recent budgets, and we'll continue to take that approach as we learn more about the state budget and begin developing our own."
MMSD’s assistant superintendent of business Mike Barry said the district has “managed our health insurance costs very effectively” while supplementing employee premiums. Over the last two years, health insurance costs have not increased for MMSD.
“We look at this very specific condition regarding employee premium contributions and health insurance and wonder, why is it necessary?” he said.
Barry contends that the district will continue “working with our employee groups, not against them.”
“We are doing just fine with our current approach and are going to stick with our current approach until we hear otherwise.”