CHEATHAM 3-05072013152903

Madison School District Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham

Madison teachers are eager to nail down another labor contract — through June 2015 at least — while the door to legally do so is open.

But it’s going to be a while before Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham is ready to consider sitting down with them.

Madison Teachers Inc. hopes to negotiate a contract beyond the one-year pact quickly approved by School Board members last fall after a local judge ruled parts of Act 10 unconstitutional, delaying implementation of the state law curbing collective bargaining rights.

“I’m just starting” on the job, Cheatham told a crowd of 150 gathered at West High School last week to talk with the superintendent, who took the helm of the Madison School District on April 1. “I need to finish this entry plan before I would be willing to consider, with (MTI Executive Director John Matthews) and our colleagues at MTI, entering into negotiations.”

Two more “conversations” with Cheatham, where community members can ask questions about district plans, policies and practices, will be held from 6:30-8 p.m. May 16 at Memorial High School and May 30 at LaFollette High School.

Cheatham’s “entry plan” maps out her focus over the first three months or so of her tenure, including developing a strategic action plan for next school year, as well as establishing a management structure and practices — and a culture — that support teachers and students. Projected completion date for that tall order is the end of June or thereabouts.

MTI filed to start negotiations on a new contract — the current one expires in July 2014 — last month, as the state Court of Appeals asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to hear the state’s appeal of the ruling by Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas that halted implementation of Act 10.

In an April 29 letter to staff, Cheatham reiterated her commitment to give teachers a voice in decision making, but said nothing about what that means about the timing of new contract negotiations.

At West High School May 9, a teacher in the audience pressed Cheatham on when contract talks might begin.

She said she was worried as a parent, too, about keeping good teachers in the district. “How are we going to keep those people here and not have them run into the ground, worrying about how they are going to pay their bills? They’re making less money now than they were last year, and that’s really hard,” she said.

Given the low morale of teachers in the wake of Act 10 and the controversy it sparked, “one of the things that would help is knowing you were going to sit down with the teachers union and negotiate with them so they could feel secure in what was going to happen,” she said. “I wonder when you are planning do that, and if you’re not, what is your hesitancy?”

Cheatham said she understands teachers are anxious, but she needs time to judge where the district stands before opening up negotiations with their union.

“I am fully aware of what teachers need to feel safe, especially as they move into the future,” Cheatham said, noting that state teacher evaluations and a new standardized test for students are scheduled to be introduced next year. ” I promise I’m not trying to stress anybody out, but if you think it is a high-stress environment now, things are just going to become more intense.”

“I realize there is a high demand that teachers feel comforted as we move into the future,” Cheatham said. “But I need time to learn about what the strengths and challenges are in the district. Before I make any decision about this I need to make sure I’ve conducted my analysis. I appreciate your patience.”

Ed Hughes, president of the Madison School Board, said Tuesday he agreed it was premature to open contract talks before Cheatham completed her entry plan and reported on it to the board, as she is scheduled to do in July.

Hughes, an attorney, noted there are 14 months to run on the current contract and said he believes that if the Supreme Court eventually strikes down Colas’ ruling, any labor contracts approved since Act 10 went into effect would be void.

“My understanding is that there isn’t any benefit in terms of likelihood of a collective bargaining agreement being honored to enter into an agreement now as opposed to later,” Hughes said.

“I think it makes sense for the district to wait until we get direction from Jen where she wants to go, what changes she wants to make, before we are in a position to undertake bargaining,” he said. “Once we are, we’ll proceed as appropriate.”

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