Law & Courts

Lawsuit Says Teacher Contracts Violate Wisconsin Policy

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 16, 2014 3 min read
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Three years after a deeply polarizing Wisconsin law restricted public employees’ bargaining rights, fallout from the act continues to affect the state’s districts and teachers’ unions.

In the latest example, Madison school officials face a lawsuit filed in state court alleging that they violated the terms of Act 10 by inking two recent teachers’ contracts containing changes to teacher-assignment practices, benefits, and other working conditions.

The law, championed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, barred public employers from negotiating anything other than minimal salary increases.

But the district and its union did just that with contracts covering the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years—and those contracts should be overturned, the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty alleged in a lawsuit filed last week.

The institute alleges that the Madison school board, the district, and its teachers’ union began negotiations for a new 2014-15 contract in September 2013 and ratified it in October despite those restrictions. What’s more, they began negotiating a deal for the 2015-16 school year this past May and ratified it in June.

Both deals go beyond base wage changes to include working conditions, teacher assignments, fringe benefits, tenure, and union-dues deductions, the lawsuit says.

It contends that taxpayers will be irreparably harmed if the contracts are allowed to stand because they would incur the costs of negotiations, paid leave, and stipends agreed to in the new pacts. It asks the Dane County District Court to invalidate the contracts and issue an injunction blocking them from being enforced.

“The board and the school district unlawfully spent taxpayer funds” in negotiating the contracts, and will spend yet more in implementing them, the lawsuit states. “The [contracts] violate the public policy of Wisconsin.”

Legal Wrinkles

One of the gray areas concerns the legal landscape surrounding Act 10, which was not quite settled when the contracts were negotiated.

Two federal courts and one state court had upheld the act’s constitutionality as of May. But Dane County District Court Judge Juan Colas had ruled in September 2012 that sections of Act 10 were unconstitutional.

While that case cranked through the appeals process, the Madison district and its teachers’ union went ahead with negotiations. Indeed, in a June letter outlining the substance of the newest contract, an official of the National Education Association-affiliated Madison Teachers Inc. wrote that Judge Colas’ decision enabled the new agreements.

“These are rights which are sadly no longer guaranteed to any other education employee in Wisconsin,” Executive Director John Matthews says in the letter.

In July, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the state constitution did not include the right to collective bargaining for public employees, effectively overturning Judge Colas’ ruling.

The district late last week said it had not yet received any notification of the suit and could not comment without reviewing it.

Union Defends Actions

In a statement, Mr. Matthews defended the contracts and the negotiations that led up to them. He said that talking with employees is an “enlightened” way of learning about their concerns and how operations can improve.

“What the governor has failed to recognize in his severe restriction on public employee wages and benefits is the restricted standard of living of these employees, the negative impact it has not only on their families, but also on the communities in which they reside—they no longer have the disposable income to enable the purchase of homes, home goods, clothing, automobiles, and the like,” Mr. Matthews continued.

He called the lawsuit “a waste of money and unnecessary stress on district employees and the community” and went on to say that “there was nothing improper or illegal” about the negotiations.

Whatever the court decides, bargained contracts are rare in today’s Wisconsin school districts. Just one other district, Sauk Prairie, has an agreement, the union said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke, who sits on the Madison school board, was not named as an individual defendant in the lawsuit.

Wisconsin’s two teachers’ unions have, in the meantime, lost thousands of members in the wake of Act 10. They have taken steps to merge, a feat that would make Wisconsin the sixth state to have combined NEA and American Federation of Teachers membership. But a vote to that end was delayed until early 2015 while committees try to reconcile the unions’ differing dues structures.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 2014 edition of Education Week as Lawsuit Claims Teacher Contracts Violate Wis. State Policy

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