A couple of bits were left out of this week's column, but the only one that mattered was the idea that local teachers have been taking the hit for our lousy state funding formula. If we're going down anyway, something that could happen in the near future, let's give teachers their due.
In the meantime, Saturday's column.
QEO bad for school districts
I was going to write something about the recently opened – and completely stupendous – new dog park in West Bend (just south of Highway 45 along 18th Avenue) but this week my dog has been even more interested in recent news stories about the inbound iceberg of state-funding-formula-disaster than he is in his new pals, Snowflake and Buddy.
As the school district fiddles with its navigation and replots its course to avoid the titanic iceberg promising to sink our fiscal solvency, local teachers have been a primary target. A significant percentage of district expenses is salary and benefits and so salary and benefits – even those negotiated in previous years – seem a likely place to start.
One recent suggestion has been to reinstate collective bargaining to reduce costs, a comment valuable only because it sheds light on yet one more grid in the toxic soduku of the state funding formula: the relationship between district solvency and the Qualified Economic Offer.
The QEO was instituted in 1993 as a way to limit annual increases in spending and specifically as a way to choke off big increases in teacher salary and benefits. It allowed school districts to unilaterally limit increases in teacher salaries and benefits to 3.8 percent.
At first glance this looks like one way to keep increases under control, but it has had a couple of entirely contrary consequences. Contrary consequence number one: the QEO, essentially, built a 3.8 percent increase into every school district statewide, increasing the pressure on districts to squeeze other programmatic functions (band, art, extra curricular sports) to stay afloat under the weight of their state mandated revenue caps. Revenue caps for West Bend, the reader will recall, have made it impossible for us to keep up with expenses over which we have no control. The QEO actually acts as an unfunded mandate which, since 1993, has slowly ticked away like a time bomb adding 3.8 percent to costs on a regular basis.
So back to that suggestion that we restore collective bargaining in order to climb out from under the tyranny of these regular, state-imposed, 3.8-percent increases. Here's what will happen if we do, and this is contrary consequence number two:
The teachers union has watched their salaries stagnate since 1993 – that's 17 years. During that time, much of that 3.8 percent has been eaten away by health care cost increases. The union will, quite naturally, negotiate for the best possible package of salaries and benefits. The district, up against the wall financially, will offer even less than before. The two sides, now at loggerheads, will go to binding arbitration where, in the interests of fairness, there is every good reason to suspect the arbitrator will award the teachers union even more than 3.8 percent. Suddenly, the process of collective bargaining will put the district even more deeply into the red, even closer to the iceberg that will, by 2012 or so, sink them.
The idea that collective bargaining will help us avoid the inbound iceberg is simply rearranging deck chairs while steering toward the iceberg and increasing the speed.
On the other hand, if we're going to sink anyway, there's no reason to be chintzy with the dinner rolls. Pass 'em out. So I suggest we remove the QEO and let the real market price for teachers settle at whatever rate can be negotiated or, barring that, arbitrated. Cutting salaries or, especially, going after already negotiated retirement benefits may only buy us another year anyway. But there is another reason to give our teachers the opportunity to negotiate a new contract.
West Bend will be one of the first districts to go into insolvency sometime in the relatively near future and, right now, there is not a lick of legislative will to do anything about it. Other districts in the state understand this full well. They're in the same boat we are, but they know that nothing will be done by our legislators until a big and academically successful district, like ours, sinks. They're waiting, hoping and praying, for that to happen. Only catastrophes seem to get the attention of legislators anymore and once the West Bend school district is dissolved, and parceled out to neighboring districts, enough people will be angry enough to vote out the rascals who occasionally radio'ed in from their lifeboats in Madison and watched us go down.
There's no reason to put it off. If the senate and assembly won't do anything to stop this disaster, let's precipitate one. Maybe school districts can get bailouts just like corporations do.