The Madison School District and its teachers union are at an impasse over the size of a raise for teachers this school year, and a School Board member is alleging district administrators could be skirting state law by privately suggesting board members reject the union’s demand.

Madison Teachers Inc. is asking for the largest base-wage increase the district can offer under 2011’s Act 10, or 2.44%, and has rejected the district’s proposed 2.32% bump, arguing that years of flat base wages and higher employee costs for benefits have eaten into teacher compensation.

After a mediation session Thursday failed to bring the two sides together, MTI emailed all seven board members to suggest ways the district could find the money to fund the additional 0.12% boost, costing about $400,000 out of a $418.7 million operating budget.

“We need your leadership now to bring this labor dispute to closure before the commencement of the school year,” the union wrote.

The union said there are “multiple avenues” to obtaining the funds, including tapping the district’s reserves or an operating referendum.

Its first suggestion, though, is “a review of both the benefits and costs of the numerous high-level administrator positions that have been added over the years.” MTI executive director Doug Keillor did not respond to a request to specify.

In addition to any base-wage increases, most teachers also get automatic pay bumps for years of service and completing additional education. The average teacher salary is $59,390, not including benefits.

Nicki Vander Meulen, who was elected to the board in 2017 and serves as the board’s clerk, said that in response to the union’s push, district administrators in a private “board briefing” Monday with her and another board member said acceding to the union’s demand would set a “bad precedent.”

“That’s virtually telling you how to vote,” she said.

Vander Meulen is not the first board member to question the legality of board briefings, which were instituted in 2013 by just-departed former superintendent Jennifer Cheatham and are held separately between one or two board members and administrators to go over items on upcoming agendas.

Former board member TJ Mertz stopped attending the meetings out of fear they could amount to the creation of “walking quorums,” which occur when members of a public body coordinate privately to take a certain action, thus rendering “the publicly held meeting a mere formality,” according to the state Department of Justice.

Vander Meulen said she will no longer attend the briefings out of concern that breaking the law could put her law license in jeopardy.

District spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson declined to say what was discussed in Vander Meulen’s briefing, and no minutes of the meetings were taken. But she said in an email that “briefings are informational, and board members have not been asked to act in a specific way on any issue.”

School Board president Gloria Reyes said the issue of the teachers’ raise was discussed in her board briefing, but she denied that administrators pressure board members to vote any particular way and called the board briefings “very helpful.”

Vander Meulen also alleged that the district is waffling on whether to allow discussion of the teacher pay raise and its impact on the budget at the board’s regular Aug. 26 meeting, despite a majority of board members having called for its discussion.

Reyes said the pay raise issue will “possibly” be on an upcoming board meeting agenda, but “if it’s on the agenda, it will be in closed session” because negotiations with the union are still occurring.

Keillor AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL ARCHIVES

Keillor said, “It is certainly appropriate for (board) members to receive updates on the progress of negotiations and to provide direction to their negotiators along the way.”

“They are the elected policy makers, they set the (district’s) budget,” he said.