Teacher Sickout Shuts Down Wisconsin District

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Strikes by public employees, including teachers, have been illegal in Wisconsin for more than two decades. But don't tell that to the students in the state's third-largest district, where a labor dispute shut down the entire system for two days last week.

Administrators of the 21,000-student Racine district closed all the schools Feb. 23 and 24 after a week in which hundreds of teachers called in sick. The absences followed the breakdown of negotiations between district officials and the Racine Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. The two sides went into this school year still negotiating a contract for 1995-96 and 1996-97.

The strife has some state education and labor leaders concerned that the same financial caps that helped precipitate the Racine shutdown could yield disruptions elsewhere.

"The frustration level is growing by leaps and bounds," said Greg Doyle, the communications director for the state education department. Teachers in more than 160 of the state's 426 districts are working with expired contracts, according to Mr. Doyle.

The Racine union's state affiliate, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, estimates that eight to 10 locals have formed "crisis committees" to explore some form of protest.

Feeling Squeezed

Much of the teachers' frustration comes from a 1993 change in state law, which, they say, effectively put a cap on teachers' salary increases.

The measure, passed at the urging of Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, stipulates that if districts fail to negotiate a contract with teachers, the educators must accept what's called a qualified economic offer, which amounts to a 3.8 percent total increase in combined salaries and benefits.

The measure came as lawmakers were seeking to reduce the burden of education spending on municipalities by capping the amount local authorities could raise in revenue. The result, educators argue, has been lower salary hikes throughout the state.

"It allows a school board to hide behind that law in dealing with their union," said John Matthews, the president of Madison Teachers Inc., the NEA affiliate in the state capital. The affiliate shut down the 25,000-student Madison schools for one day last fall before a state circuit court judge ordered both sides back to the bargaining table.

The WEAC is advocating amending the law.

Given the political reality that the public wants tax relief, some education officials say they oppose major changes in the law. "We can't ignore the general public out there, and they're frustrated, too," said Senn Brown, the director of legislative services for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.

The Racine dispute boiled over as teachers at several schools began calling in sick, forcing the district to close four buildings Feb. 16. Teacher absences continued throughout the week, each day affecting a different handful of schools. At one high school, the disruption prompted about 300 students to stage a 20-minute walkout.

Although union leaders called the districtwide shutdown a "lockout," administrators said they anticipated that the sickout would only escalate, possibly jeopardizing the safety of students who were leaving school grounds.

"For many of them, their attitude seemed to be, 'If my teacher's not here, why do I need to be here?'" said Rick Kaufman, a district spokesman.

Both sides reached an agreement to reopen the schools Feb. 25 and to restart negotiations. Although the shutdown ended after just two days, the disruption may have served as a lesson to teachers in other districts frustrated with the pace of their negotiations.

"Unfortunately, Racine is the test market for sickouts in the state," Mr. Kaufman said.

Toledo Strife

Meanwhile, Ohio's Toledo Federation of Teachers, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate, filed a 10-day notice Feb. 26 of its intention to strike.

Even though negotiators for both sides in the 40,000-student district had resolved differences over proposed amendments to the system's nationally recognized teacher-evaluation system, they still were wrangling over salaries and transfer policies last week. ("Toledo Peer-Review Program Being Contested," Jan. 28, 1998.)

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