Hope Surrounding Wisconsin Act 10: A school board member speaks out

By Becky Gundrum — As we near the one-year anniversary of the implementation of ACT 10 (the legislation that severely curbs collective bargaining rights for public union employees, including teachers) I thought I would take this opportunity to share my observations on the impact of this bill on school board governance and administration in my small exurban district.

It is important to note that the teachers in my district remain under their union contract through June 30, 2013.

In my opinion, this is a God-send because we, the school board, have still another year before we have to go live with the teacher employee handbook: the document that will replace the existing union contract. This extra time has provided us an opportunity to open up dialogue with the administration and the teachers over everything from retirement packages to the school calendar to teacher evaluation.

As we started down the path of the new employee handbooks for support staff, followed by the teachers, what I became keenly aware of is how different operating under a union contract is from my own experience in the private sector. In fact, I am still somewhat surprised at how many times we, the board, say, “How does this happen in the private sector?” when we hit a sticking point. Nowhere has this been more evident than in discussions about paid and unpaid leave, and compensation based on job performance (among other things).

My second observation is that Act 10 may be creating an opportunity for support staff and teachers to have real conversations about life in school with the school board.  Apparently, the union negotiations created a barrier to real and frank conversations about what is important to people in their jobs as school personnel. Although I admit the conversations have been a bit strained and I am still worried about morale, I feel optimistic that the board and the teachers will be able to reach agreements about what is important for the district and teacher and student success.

My third observation relates to how how ACT 10, along with the requisite teacher evaluation implementation, affects the role of the building principal. In this time of rapid change (RTI implementation, core of common standards implementation, rising rates of student poverty, and fewer resources) we are expecting principals to fairly evaluate all of their teachers annually using a new tool and system to do so and to re-imagine the way they might deploy resources.

Once the contract is up, principals will have the opportunity to treat teachers differently based on skills and strength: Maybe a struggling teacher will get two prep periods instead of the standard one, maybe a good employee will receive paid time off for an unexpected event where another lower performing teacher may not, maybe a stellar teacher used to teaching higher level students will now be assigned to the struggling learners and maybe they will not like it!

These are all within a principals purview post ACT 10. Principals will be able to deploy, scaffold and support teachers to help them reach their highest potential without having to be concerned about breaking the contractual rules. But this is a new role, and one I might be nervous about if I found myself in similar circumstances.

Finally, ACT 10 has provided an opportunity for my school board to think through the kind of district it wants to be by virtue of having to discuss what benefits and rights we want to give to the staff who have dedicated themselves to our district’s children. Conversations among members have been tense at times as we walk carefully along ideological lines and deal with the real issues of decreasing budgets and rising costs while at the same time being asked to do the same or more with less.

Without ACT 10 we may never have had to have the difficult conversations — and my hope is that, at the full implementation of the teacher employee handbook on July 1, 2013, we will be a stronger board, a stronger teaching force and a stronger district because we worked together and are equally accountable to the success or failure of the district as a whole.

__________________________________

Becky Gundrum is a Ph.D. student in Educational Policy and Leadership with interests in school board governance and organizational change.  She has served as a member of the Slinger School Board since 2008. Currently, she chairs the curriculum committee and works with both the new personnel committee, tasked with developing the emoter handbooks, and the policy committee.  She spends her free time running, playing soccer and maintaining her two teen-aged daughters. 

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