Wisconsin Schools Told to Hold Off on New Contracts

March 28, 2011 - 3:57 PM

Madison, Wis. (AP) - The Wisconsin school board association on Monday urged districts that have not reached new deals with teachers' unions to hold off given the uncertainty over whether a new law removing nearly all collective bargaining rights is in effect.

Many school districts, counties and municipalities have been rushing to reach deals before the law that takes away all bargaining rights except over base salary kicks in.

Republican lawmakers pushed through passage of the law earlier this month despite massive protests that drew up to 85,000 people to the state Capitol and a boycott by Democratic state senators. Opponents immediately filed a series of lawsuits, and a hearing on one was scheduled Tuesday. The judge in that case had issued a restraining order barring Democratic Secretary of State Doug La Follette from publishing the law, typically the last step before it takes effect.

But at the request of a Republican Senate leader, the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau posted the law on the Legislature's website Friday. Gov. Scott Walker's administration has said that put the law into effect Saturday and it would work to implement it immediately.

La Follette and the head of the office that posted the law, as well as a nonpartisan legislative attorney, have said it is not in effect.

Given the uncertainty over whether the law is in effect or not, the Wisconsin Association of School Boards has told districts that are still negotiating with teachers not to take any official action until the courts resolve the dispute.

"Because we have a difference of opinion within the state administration, the safest place to be is to not enter an agreement at the present time," said Bob Butler, an attorney for the school boards association. "I'm very hesitant to tell someone to go out and do something a portion of the state is telling you not to do."

Any deals reached since Saturday could later be challenged if that turns out to have been the effective date of the law, he said.

Butler said he thought as many as 150 of the state's 424 school districts had either extended their current contracts or reached new deals. About 200 took no action and another 75 or so were still considering what to do, including some that were close to a deal before the unexpected action on Friday, Butler said.

At least two - Waunakee and Belleville - signed agreements last week, he said.

When Walker signed the bill on March 11, the original effective date before the lawsuit was filed would have been Saturday. That led many districts and teachers to push for agreements before then, Butler said.

At least one school district canceled a meeting scheduled to talk about a new teacher contract, saying it didn't want to act with uncertainty reigning about the state of the law.

Port Washington-Saukville School Board President Patty Ruth said in a news release that the meeting was canceled due to uncertainty over whether the law was in effect. Going forward given the circumstances and ongoing legal confusion "would create significant risks for our district, all of which can be avoided if we cancel the meeting until the courts have rendered their decisions on the various legal questions," she said.

Dan Thompson, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, said he thought many communities that wanted to reach labor agreements before the law took effect did so before Saturday. He said others have chosen to hold on negotiating new contracts until they had a clearer sense how they would be affected under Walker's pending two-year budget plan.

"What I'm hearing from my members is questions," said Thompson, whose group represents Wisconsin municipalities. "I don't really have the answer."

Walker has proposed more than $1 billion in cuts to schools, counties and local governments in his budget that would take effect in July. He has argued union concessions are needed to help those affected make up for his proposed aid cuts.

Thompson said some municipalities Along with removing most of public employees' collective bargaining rights, the new law requires them to pay more for their health insurance and pensions, which amounts to an 8 percent pay cut. That portion of the law was due to take effect Sunday.

Walker's top aide Mike Huebsch said Monday the administration was moving ahead with that by preparing a computer program to take out the new deductions and to restore automatic union payments on paychecks of state workers will receive April 21. The Department of Administration would stop that work if a court determined the law didn't take effect Saturday, Huebsch said.

Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz said the city attorney has advised him he does not believe the law is in effect. Madison city attorney Mike May sent a memo Monday advising city staff and employees to take no steps to implement the law until there is a court order or other action establishing that it is in effect.

Tuesday's hearing in district court will focus on a lawsuit filed by Ismael Ozanne, the district attorney in Dane County, which includes Madison. Ozanne claims the state open meetings law was violated the night the Senate passed the bill. An appeals court asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to take up the case after the state appealed the district court judge's temporary restraining order. The Supreme Court is under no deadline to make a decision.