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State Supreme Court says teacher should get back pay

In a June 17 decision, the Wisconsin Supreme Court found a Baldwin-Woodville teacher is indeed entitled to back pay after an error placed her on the wrong lane of the salary schedule.

This ruling reverses a District III Court of Appeals decision in a lawsuit filed by the West Central Education Association on behalf of Christine Johnson.

The appeals court had ruled that the Baldwin-Woodville School District didn't owe Johnson back pay because she filed her grievance too late.

According to background in the Supreme Court decision, Johnson was hired as a Baldwin-Woodville teacher in fall 2002. Her resume indicated she had a bachelor's degree in elementary education and an extra 11 graduate school credits.

The salary schedule sets pay based on a teacher's degree and additional graduate-level credits.

Johnson was initially placed at the BA plus 8 lane with a salary of $28,808. Soon after, the district and the union reached a new collective bargaining agreement.

When Johnson signed her revised contract Oct. 17, 2002, she didn't realize it placed her on the BA plus zero lane. Her annual salary was reduced to $28,148. She was paid at that rate for the rest of the 2002-03 year.

For the 2003-04 and 2004-05 years, Johnson was paid at the BA rate, earning $29,749 and $31,279 respectively. Had she been at the BA plus 8 lane, her pay would have been $30,146 and $31,983.

In August 2005, according to the Supreme Court decision, Johnson realized she was being underpaid and submitted a form called "Request to Change Lanes for the 2005-2006 School Year."

She did not make a separate request for back pay then. The district approved the lane change request and gave Johnson a raise for the 2005-06 year but did nothing about back pay.

According to an arbitrator, Johnson didn't realize until May 2006 that she hadn't gotten the back pay. When the superintendent took the matter to the school board, it voted to deny Johnson's request for back wages.

WEAC and Johnson filed a grievance, which was denied July 17, 2006, by the district in part because it contended the grievance was filed too late.

An arbitrator concluded that in August 2005 the district had implicitly acknowledged Johnson had been entitled to the BA plus 8 pay all along and therefore she could reasonably have expected the back wages. The arbitrator also found that Johnson's grievance had been filed in time.

St. Croix County Judge Eric Lundell denied the district's motion to vacate the arbitrator's award, but his decision was reversed by the Court of Appeals.

In its decision, the Supreme Court did not determine if the arbitrator's interpretation of when the grievance should have been filed was "the most reasonable" but instead found that his interpretation "had a foundation in reason" and was therefore valid.