GREEN BAY – The topic of my speech was the continued value of local education in building Wisconsin’s “knowledge economy,” and the 50 or so school administrators in the room listened carefully to my message about preparing K-12 students for the rigors of a globally competitive 21st century.
It was hard, however, to ignore the elephant in the corner of my PowerPoint slides.
For most of the school superintendents, human resource directors and fiscal officers in the Green Bay audience, the most important thing on their minds was not to rush out and launch a program to improve science and engineering education.
Rather, the most pressing problem of the day for most school officials in Wisconsin is surviving an unsettled, contentious era in the relationship between local teachers, administrators and school boards.
While the legislative and legal battle lines have been drawn in Madison, the real struggles are being fought across the state, district by district, as the reality of budget cuts and the potential end of collective bargaining for unionized teachers sinks in.
District administrators know they’re facing major cuts in state financial support over the next few years, but they’re still not sure they will get the flexibility they want to deal with those cuts. That promised flexibility could come in the form of what Gov. Scott Walker has described as management “tools” for changing teacher benefit plans, work rules and more.
But the bill containing those tools is hung up in court – and many school administrators aren’t sure about what they should do, or not do, in the interim.
Although the bill awaits final judicial action, life goes on for school boards across Wisconsin. With their district budgets at stake, school board members must choose between passing new union contracts now and waiting for the state law to take effect – assuming it does in its current form.
In some districts, the strategy is to ratify multi-year contracts now and essentially get the same financial concessions that Walker outlined in his budget-repair bill. About 150 of Wisconsin’s 425 school districts have done so, mainly because it helps them come closer to balancing their budgets without laying off teachers or other staff.
Typically, districts that have inked deals with their unionized employees have won concessions similar to those covered in the state budget-repair bill, including enhanced retirement fund payments and higher health insurance contributions.
Other districts have chosen to wait-and-see, believing it’s better to head into the fiscal year beginning July 1 with an uncertain budget than to sign long-term contracts that might keep union work rules in place for a much longer time.
In Green Bay, Brookfield, Eau Claire and Wisconsin Dells, all places where I spoke last month to school officials gathered for workshops organized by WEA Trust, the mood was similar: How can school boards and administrators most effectively manage the changes set in motion this winter in Madison?
Each district must decide for itself how to balance the needs of taxpayers and teachers, but that equation cannot exclude the needs of students who will become a part of Wisconsin’s next-generation workforce.
For Wisconsin businesses and communities to compete, our students must measure up not only to our neighbors in Minnesota and Illinois – but to students in faraway places such as Mumbai and Shanghai. American students are slipping in test-score comparisons with their international peers, and our nation is producing fewer homegrown scientists, engineers and technologists than it needs to produce to remain safe and prosperous.
As Wisconsin’s school districts chart new management paths, those districts must remain committed to adopting innovation in the classroom, to fairly assessing how students and teachers perform, and to embracing change in how K-12 education is structured. These uncertain times will pass, but the need for high-quality schools that produce great workers and citizens will not.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.