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Madison School Board, District sued over employee contracts

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A conservative legal group sued Madison’s school district, school board and teachers union Wednesday over what it calls illegal labor contracts the district continues to honor.

The lawsuit was filed by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty on behalf of David Blaska, a well-known conservative blogger living in Madison, according to Dane County Circuit Court records.

The suit alleges the district’s contracts with Madison Teachers Inc. for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years violate Act 10, Gov. Scott Walker’s signature 2011 legislation that all but eliminated collective bargaining rights for most public employees. Blaska requests a declaration that the contracts are illegal and void, and an injunction to prohibit the contracts from being enforced, according to a copy of the lawsuit provided by WILL.

Wednesday’s lawsuit comes on the heels of comments Walker, a Republican, made last week blasting Democrat opponent Mary Burke, a Madison School Board member, for approving the contracts and not taking advantage of Act 10 to hold down labor costs. Walker’s campaign chairman, Michael Grebe, is president and CEO of the Bradley Foundation, which gave $500,000 to WILL annually between 2011 and 2013, according to the foundation’s annual reports.

WILL this year successfully sued the Kenosha School District over teacher contracts after the board approved a contract with its employees.

In Madison, the School District and School Board “are forcing their teachers to abide by — and taxpayers to pay for — an illegal labor contract with terms violating Act 10 based upon unlawful collective bargaining with Madison Teachers, Inc.,” a statement from WILL said.

Blaska, a former member of the Dane County Board who blogs for InBusiness, said in addition to believing the contracts are illegal, he wanted to sue MTI because of its behavior, which he called coercive and bullyish.

“I truly believe that there’s a better model out there if the school board would grab for it,” Blaska said.

MTI executive director John Matthews said it’s not surprising the suit was filed on behalf of Blaska “given his hostile attacks on MTI over the past several years.”

“WILL certainly has the right to challenge the contracts, but I see (it as) such as a waste of money and unnecessary stress on district employees and the community,” said Matthews, adding that negotiating the contracts “was legal.”

In August, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Act 10 constitutional after MTI and others had challenged its legality. At the time, union and district officials said the contracts that were negotiated before the ruling was issued were solid going forward.

Under Act 10, unions are not allowed to bargain over anything but base wage raises, which are limited to the rate of inflation. Act 10 also prohibits union dues from being automatically deducted from members’ paychecks as well as “fair share” payments from employees who do not want to be union members.

Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said Wednesday the district has not yet received notification of the suit being filed.

“If and when we do, we’ll review with our team and the Board of Education,” she said.

School Board vice president James Howard said the board “felt we were basically in accordance with the law” when the contracts were negotiated and approved.

WILL has previously sent letters to the Madison School District and to school board members prior to contract votes notifying them of the risk of a lawsuit if the contracts were approved.

Howard said he didn’t anticipate contracts being nullified in Madison.

“The only way we’ll nullify a contract is if somehow we feel the contract is illegal,” Howard said. “When (the Act 10) ruling came down, the ruling didn’t say anything specifically about us violating any law. I don’t see that happening, but I’d like to wait for the (district) administration to really review the issue again.”

“We acted within the advice of our legal counsel and that MTI being a party to the suit put us in a unique legal position,” said T.J. Mertz.

Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel of WILL, said the suit is over the district continuing to honor the contracts it has with MTI that include provisions not allowed under Act 10 now that the law has been upheld by the Supreme Court. He pointed to provisions regarding employer contributions to health care premiums and fair-share payments as examples.

Paul Secunda, a Marquette University Law School professor and director of its labor and employment program, said the lawsuit is likely not to be successful.

“Rick and his organization are trying to make political points. You’ve got your opponent down and you go for the kill, that’s their strategy right now,” he said. “I don’t see anything unlawful the teachers are doing.

“They’re allowed to stay under their current bargaining contract.”

Secunda said he views union dues and employer-paid health insurance premiums as permissible for the length of the contract.

“It might not be permissible after the contract expires. But given that this case was just decided by the Wisconsin Supreme Court ... it’s very unlikely to succeed,” Secunda said. “They negotiated their current contract when the fate of Act 10 was still up in the air.”

— Reporter Matthew DeFour contributed to this report.

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