Photo by Patti Wenzel

More than 1,000 Milwaukee Public School teachers, teaching assistants and substitute teachers foundpink slips in their mailboxes over the weekend.

In response, teachers gathered in protest at the MPS administration building on Vliet Street yesterday evening. It was organized by Amy Mizialko, but she credits the teachers, parents and students who came to the event. Fueled by chants of “MPS teachers care about kids,” the crowd marched in front of the administration building and listened to speakers demand that the district restore the positions.

“We have to support the kids and we can’t keep withdrawing funds and teachers from the district. I just don’t see how [students] can sustain that loss,” Mizialko, a district-wide mentor, said. “We’re at a critical time in the district where we need to move the achievement levels of the students.”

One speaker said the layoffs were inconsistent with the the district’s core beliefs to put students first and to make the classroom the most important place in the district.

A student from Roosevelt Middle School asked the school board to “bring back our teachers for our future,” while a recent graduate of The Alliance School bemoaned the loss of 4 out of the 10 total teachers at his alma mater. “The teachers there are caring people who wanted to help students who were struggling. That is what made the school a success,” he said.

But was the protest in front of the correct building? Are these layoffs the fault of the MPS board and administration or the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association and its members?

Within the 2010-11 budget is an amendment to reverse the layoffs if the unions agree to use a lower-cost HMO offered by the district over the Aetna plan with a higher premium. A single union, representing painters and other tradesmen, agreed to the concession and had their positions restored. However, MTEA has not agreed to the amendment request.

An MTEA official said the district never brought the concession request to the ongoing contract talks with the union, choosing instead to publicly negotiate the issue in the press and at public hearings.

MTEA president Mike Langyel shared his position on the subject in March with a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial. He said that the MPS Aetna plan is similar to the benefits offered to teachers in surrounding suburban districts. He added that most districts don’t offer a lower cost option and none only use an HMO.  In addition, a wellness program started by MTEA has provided nearly $1 million in savings in its first year, according to Langyel.

The union feels the problem facing MPS is not the benefits issues but the funding formulas used by the schools. “School funding in a national problem,” MTEA Interim Executive Director Pat O’Mahar said. “Districts across the country are struggling financially. The problem must be addressed with a national solution — a federal stimulus package that will restore educator positions and allow MPS children to keep their teachers.”

In a statement released by MPS, the district states that escalating health care costs for current and retired employees are the single most critical fiscal issue. According to Superintendent William Andrekoupolos, benefits cost more than 75 percent of the wages in the district.  It also disputes the union’s claim they have not received information from the district stating, “We have exchanged information with the district’s bargaining units regarding these costs, and we continue to talk.”

MPS Spokesperson Roseann St. Aubin  said the teachers are currently working under an expired contract, so there is hope the issue of benefits could be reopened. If that occurs before October, there could be a chance to reinstate the positions when adjustments are made to the budget relating to state aid and enrollment numbers.

She added that even though 482 teachers were laid off, that is  not the final number that will be let go. Vacancies, retirements and voluntary resignations will change the number.

Protesters were just as divided over what caused this dilemma, with some saying their pay is so low the benefit package is necessary or it was unfair that the district was negotiating in public. Others thought the teachers need to accept some cuts or that they are being unfairly portrayed in the press.

Overall, it seems that the administration and union are talking past one another with the kids left to suffer the consequences.

“We are willing to settle the contract with concessions,” said Bob Jorin, a digital technology technician for MPS. He said the district is asking for a memorandum of understanding from the union agreeing to the health benefit concessions, while the union is telling the district the contract is currently open and they should ask for the concessions. It’s hard to point fingers, but there is bad communication on both sides.”

The argument between the district and the union has come down to who will budge first. Until then, there will be less adults in the classrooms and achievement standards, literacy programming and overall education goals will not be obtained. Retiring teacher George Brosky said this isn’t just a problem for MPS, but for the city of Milwaukee as a whole.

“You cannot educate children without adults in the classroom,” he said. “This will hurt the pool of future employees, employers and leaders in Milwaukee. We all better start being concerned because we don’t want to become the next Detroit, which is what happens when you don’t finance education in classrooms.”

It’s time for these adults to sit down, discuss the options and make a decision that will put teachers back in front of the students, without breaking the bank for taxpayers.

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