School hallway, State Journal file photo

The Madison School Board approved an employee handbook Monday that will replace the current union contract when it expires next summer.

The handbook became necessary due to Act 10, the 2011 state law that eliminated most collective bargaining for most public employees.

Madison took a while to get to this point. The Wisconsin Association of School Boards said it knows of no district other than Madison where workers still are covered by a pre-Act 10 union contract.

When the contract expires June 30, 2016, the handbook’s policies and procedures will guide interactions between the district and its roughly 6,000 employees.

While some school boards used Act 10 to dictate major changes in working conditions, cutting costs in the process, Madison took a different approach. The board instructed administrators to work collaboratively with employee representatives on the handbook’s language.

While the board was free to take this approach, it didn’t necessarily serve taxpayers well, said conservative lawyer Rick Esenberg.

“Basically, you can have a more effective school district if you don’t have rigid work rules,” said Esenberg, president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

Esenberg’s law group sued the district last year on behalf of conservative blogger David Blaska, a taxpayer in the district. Blaska argued that the current union contract violates Act 10 and should not be valid for this school year.

In a coincidence of timing, Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess ruled on the lawsuit Monday, just hours before the board met.

Niess rejected the lawsuit on procedural grounds, saying Blaska did not follow the required legal steps.

Specifically, Niess said Blaska failed to first serve the district with a notice of claim before filing the lawsuit, a requirement that would have given the district 120 days to respond. Had Blaska’s lawsuit succeeded, the handbook would have been needed this school year.

A second, similar lawsuit over teacher contracts between the district and its staff remains unresolved. In that case, the plaintiff is East Side resident Norman Sannes.

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Like Blaska’s suit, it alleges the district is continuing to honor illegal labor contracts negotiated after the enactment of Act 10.

The district contends the contracts were negotiated during a window where the legality of Act 10 had not yet been settled by the courts.

Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham defended the collaborative approach to the handbook in an interview Monday.

“Our board and our administration has been clear and consistent over the last several years that we value our employees and that we think we’re a better organization when we work collaboratively with them to make decisions,” she said.

Saving money was not the intent going into the handbook process, she said.

The two sides came to consensus on all but one item: whether qualified internal applicants in support areas such as custodial services and food service will get first crack at open positions, as is currently the case, or at the same time as external applicants, as management wants.

Both sides think they can come to a consensus, so the board approved the handbook Monday with a “to be determined” clause on that matter.

Ultimately, Act 10 gives school boards the final say, meaning union members no longer have the ability to ratify the rules.

Still, on all of the major points — salary schedule, health insurance benefits, paid holidays, sick leave, retirement benefits — no changes were made, according to union and district officials. Elsewhere, there was compromise.

For instance, union officials agreed to reduce from two to one the number of so-called “voluntary days,” which are paid days teachers get at the beginning of each school year to use as they like. They often use the time to prepare for classes, but they are not required to be at school.

Meanwhile, union officials say they achieved several goals in the area of employee grievances. For instance, if an independent hearing officer is needed to settle an employee grievance, both parties will mutually select the person.

That’s different from the language in Act 10. While the law requires that every municipal employer adopt a grievance procedure, it allows the employer to unilaterally select the hearing officer.

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