Law & Courts

What’s Next for Wisconsin Districts, Following Court Decision?

By Sean Cavanagh — June 15, 2011 3 min read
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Wisconsin’s Supreme Court has upheld Gov. Scott Walker’s controversial measure to scale back workers’ collective bargaining rights, but don’t expect the political upheaval and policy questions to go away any time soon.

The law, which has sparked months of protests at Wisconsin’s state capitol, deepened partisan divisions in the legislature and around the state. Activists who were angered about state Republicans’ support of the measure—or Democrats’ opposition to it—have pushed to have recall elections placed on the ballot. To this point, elections to recall six Republicans and three Democrats have been certified by the state.

Wisconsin’s law limits collective bargaining for teachers and many public workers (exluding police and firefighters) to wages, restricts the size of their salary increases, caps contracts to a maximum of one year, and raises educators’ required contributions to pensions and health care. Democrats in the state legislature vigorously fought the plan, at one point fleeing the state to prevent Republicans, who control both chambers, from voting on it. But GOP lawmakers eventually got around that impasse by stripping the financial measures from the bill and having a special committee approve a revised measure. It was eventually sent to Gov. Walker, who signed it.

A local district attorney, Ismael Ozanne, sued to block the measure, arguing that Republicans had violated open-meetings laws, and a circuit court judge, Maryann Sumi, blocked the law from taking effect. But yesterday, Wisconsin’s high court overturned that decision.

Walker argues that reducing teachers’ collective bargaining powers will allow districts to write contracts that bring down costs and help taxpayers. But a number of Wisconsin school administrators have voiced skepticism about the governor’s projections, saying that any savings from the law are not likely to make up for the major cuts that Walker and Republican lawmakers hope to make to schools’ budgets.

Miles Turner, the executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, reiterated those concerns yesterday.

“It’s very clear to everybody that the changes are insufficient to provide enough savings to districts,” he said.

As the law was being debated, some districts revised their contracts with teachers, which will delay the impact of the law in those school systems, Turner said. In many cases, those savings will reduce taxpayer costs, he said. (During the debate over the law, Walker argued that some local contracts were being pushed through that were not beneficial to taxpayers.) In addition, some districts facing the prospect of laying off employees have been helped by a wave of earlier-than-expected retirements by older workers.

“People wanted to get out while they had a sense of what the benefits were, and [they were worried] about what would happen to benefits in the future,” Turner said.

Turner said that he is meeting with district administrators today about the challenges of implementing the law and that his organization will conduct extensive outreach in the future on the issue. But he said he is worried about the impact of budget cuts on districts, and about law’s impact on relations between teachers and school leaders.

“It’s like we’re sailing into a huge fog bank,” he said. “Wisconsin is going into the most unsettled and uncertain environment our schools have faced, probably in the history of the state.”

Republican leaders in Wisconsin were more optimistic after the ruling, saying the law will give the state and local districts more tools to save money.

“The headlines shouldn’t be about the procedure, even with this vindication,” Senator Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said in a statement. “Republicans are passing a budget this week that focuses on jobs, improves the economy, permanently freezes property taxes and turns a $3 billion deficit into a $300 million surplus.”

“We followed the law when the bill was passed, simple as that,” he added. “We’re finally headed in the right direction by balancing the budget and focusing on jobs, just like Republicans promised we would do.”

Photo: Demonstrators gather in the state Capitol rotunda for a “Solidarity Sing-Along” on June 14 in Madison, Wis. (M.P. King/Wisconsin State Journal/AP)

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.