Employee handbook will replace teachers’ contract in SomersetWith the elimination of collective bargaining in Wisconsin public schools, school districts are replacing teacher contracts with agreements called “employee handbooks.”
By: Dave Newman, New Richmond News
With the elimination of collective bargaining in Wisconsin public schools, school districts are replacing teacher contracts with agreements called “employee handbooks.”
Since October, members of the Somerset Board of Education have been meeting weekly to structure the district’s employee handbook, which is scheduled to take effect in July.
The elimination of collective bargaining came about by the passing of Act 10 by Gov. Scott Walker. The employee handbook was created to give school employees a structured document to take the place of their contract.
The only item left up for bargaining for school employees is their base wage, with the provision that the wage increase cannot be above the Consumer Price Index for the year. Somerset Superintendent Randy Rosburg said the CPI for this year is 2.1 percent, so that is the maximum that salaries of the unionized employees can increase this year.
Because collective bargaining was dissolved, salary is the only issue in which the district employees can influence a contractual decision. Insurance, other benefits and items like the school calendar are now set at the board’s discretion.
The board’s Human Resources committee has been meeting weekly to structure the employee handbook. The committee invited five teachers and three administrators to attend the meetings to be part of the process of structuring the handbook. The staff members are providing information when the committee members want specifics about how situations work within the school buildings.
To craft the employee handbook, the school board decided to pay $1,000 to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards for a 250-page template. This WASB document contained all the base items needed in the handbook, giving the committee a starting point from which to craft each item.
The committee started the process in October by reviewing all the nuances of the current collective bargaining agreement with the teachers. That was followed by a review of the agreement with the support staff. They then dove into the 250-page WASB document. That compares to the current collective bargaining agreement, which is 26 pages.
Rosburg said the committee is viewing each item in the WASB document to decide whether the district should use the wording in the current bargaining agreement, blend the current wording with the new WASB recommendations, or delete irrelevant items that don’t fit Somerset’s situation.
Several terms that have been used in the district in the past have been deleted from the employee handbook. Probation will no longer be part of the staff policy. Seniority, in terms of layoffs, has also been removed. The term “just cause,” in terms of non-renewal of staff, has also been removed. Rosburg said this was done to hasten the removal of staff members who are not meeting the expectations of the board and administration. To remove a staff member previously took two to three years. This could cut that time in half. Rosburg said the BOE would still have to “satisfy just cause” to terminate an employee.
Another key change in the handbook involves salary increases. The collective bargaining agreement provided for salary increases through a series of lanes and steps. Act 10 said schools are no longer bound to that principle.
Rosburg said this allows districts to come up with options on deciding salary increases, but they must have documented criteria. The HR committee is still reviewing the salary portion of the handbook, but Rosburg said student performance is one criterion that could be used in setting salary increases.
Staff members have been able to give input on each item in the handbook. Minutes of each committee meeting are emailed to staff members each week, so they are informed about how the handbook is being structured.
The HR committee passed the 100-page mark in the WASB document at the start of the month. The goal is to have the new employee handbook ready for a first reading at the March BOE meeting.
Another change with the employee handbook is that, once approved, it can be changed at any time. The collective bargaining agreement could not be changed once it was agreed upon. So if there is something in the handbook that needs altering, the Somerset Board of Education can take immediate action instead of waiting to deal with the issue at the end of the contract cycle, according to Rosburg.
The board and the school staff members wanted to take the time to thoroughly develop a handbook. All the school employees agreed to a one-year extension of the collective bargaining contract and a 2 percent base wage increase this year, to give the board sufficient time to develop the employee handbook. Otherwise, the employee handbook would have had to be completed and approved by Oct. 1.
Rosburg said the board and school staff have worked collaboratively throughout this process to make the employee handbook a document that will work fairly for both sides. One example is the school calendar. An email was sent to the staff inviting anyone who wanted to help structure the calendar to attend a meeting. Thirty staff members took the opportunity to get involved.
“I think it’s the best calendar we’ve ever had moving forward,” Rosburg said.