The Madison School Board will not discuss controversial changes proposed to the Employee Handbook Monday night as planned.
Board president Gloria Reyes announced in a press release sent by Madison Metropolitan School District spokesperson Tim LeMonds Monday afternoon that the item had been removed from the agenda and would be discussed at a special meeting at a later date.
“This change in the agenda is to provide additional direction and allow for more discussion and collaboration with stakeholders prior to any board discussion and subsequent action on employee handbook changes,” the statement reads.
The changes included a few items that Madison Teachers Inc. opposed. The union had been organizing its membership to speak Monday night before the meeting or send emails to board members opposing changes to layoff rules, specifically.
District administration had recommended the changes, which would shift the criteria for layoffs or shifting surplus staff among schools from seniority to a series of performance measurements like Educator Effectiveness evaluations, cultural competence and experience, among other things.
The changes could be made without union support through flexibility provided under Act 10 nearly a decade ago.
In a memo to the board with the agenda published last Friday, interim superintendent Jane Belmore wrote the changes were proposed with an aim at increasing staff diversity. With higher turnover for teachers of color, any layoffs could disproportionately affect that group, administrators said at previous meetings.
“The board is committed to racial equity and reviewing existing policies and procedures that interfere with our progress on fighting racism within our educational system,” the district’s statement says. “This agenda change will provide time and opportunity for MTI and their membership to forward to the MMSD board equitable strategies and concerns regarding district administration’s recommended changes before a future special meeting of the board.”
MTI has said the proposed measures are not objective in the way seniority is, and while they agree with the need to diversify the staff, they questioned if this would be effective toward that end.
“Attempts to eliminate seniority under the guise of equity is a narrative unsubstantiated by evidence,” the union wrote in a Facebook post Sunday. “Data shows that retention of staff of color is not connected to surplus or layoff rules determined by seniority.”
Instead, they asked the district to work with MTI to develop changes that could solve the problem of staff demographics not reflecting those of the student body. That includes focusing on working conditions and support.
“The primary factors in retaining quality staff of color are the level of individual support they receive from their district and building leadership and quality of working conditions in their schools,” MTI wrote in the Facebook post. “If these are ignored and working conditions continue to deteriorate, then staff of color will continue to leave MMSD regardless of seniority rules.”
Other proposed changes the union disagreed with included the timing of teacher layoff notices. Those go out annually around the end of the school year and are effective the following school year, but under the changes would have been allowed with 30 days notice at any time of the year. In the memo, Belmore wrote this would be a “budgetary matter.”
“While it would still continue to be the norm that decisions as to the need for layoff would be made in the spring to be effective for the following school year, there may be unique/extraordinary situations where there is a need to reduce staff during the year,” Belmore wrote. “This language change would provide for that flexibility. In addition, a 30 day notice is consistent with notice that is provided to other employee groups for layoff.”
MTI president Andy Waity said in a press release last Friday that the group was disappointed in the process the district had used leading up to proposing the changes. The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the Employee Handbook Committee’s meetings, and Waity said they were surprised to see the proposals earlier this month at a board work group meeting.
“Given the many stresses and challenges facing our members, we were really taken aback that the administration chose to approach things in this divisive and disrespectful manner," Waity said.
MTI executive director Ed Sadlowski wrote in an email after the announcement that the union "applauds the leadership demonstrated by MMSD Board President Reyes, and the those Board members supporting MTI’s demand to 'pause' the Handbook Review process."
"The membership of MTI has spoken collectively in opposition to the Administration’s recent actions and tactics, which have been deliberately aimed at creating a divide within the Union and the school community," Sadlowski wrote. "MTI members remain steadfast in their commitment towards pulling together, working with the District to ensure worker’s voice in reviewing and creating policy, and to secure the necessary funding and resources to address the needs of our public schools, our students and families."
Board member Nicki Vander Meulen had publicly opposed the changes, asking administration to meet in "good faith" with the union to discuss the proposals. She said she would vote against them and the preliminary budget if no such discussions occurred.
"I stand with MTI and I refuse to vote on unilateral handbook changes, and I encourage my fellow board members to vote no as well," she said in a statement Sunday. "For MMSD to make a change to teachers contracts during a global pandemic is unconscionable and possibly illegal under the Wisconsin State Statutes. I urge the administration to table these handbook changes and meet with MTI in good faith.”
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