Bob Peterson MTEA President
MTEA President Bob Peterson rallies his members. Photo courtesy Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association.

I feel sorry for the children attending Milwaukee Public Schools.  They’re the ones who will have bigger classrooms, fewer teachers and nurses and less access to arts and physical education due to the recent decision by the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association to not discuss pension concessions with the school board.

I feel sorry for the young teachers, many with three years or less seniority in the district, hurt by that same decision.

And I feel sorry for our community. Once again, educating our children is losing the war as a battle of ideology and politics rages.

An internal survey of MTEA members, released last week, showed that 52.4 percent did not want to discuss a possible 5.8 percent contribution toward their pension benefits, following the minimum guideline adopted in the 2011 Budget Repair Bill. Legally, MTEA members do not have to abide by the guideline for awhile yet; the district approved a new 3-year contract before it passed.

According to MPS Board President Michael Bonds, the pension contributions would allow MPS to recall 198 of the 354 teachers laid off in June – including 27 arts and music teachers – along with 22 school nurses, a nursing supervisor.  Of those 198 recalled teachers, 51 would be SAGE program teachers, which allow low-income districts to hold classroom sizes to 18 students in kindergarten through 3rd Grade.

The survey came on the heels of a request by MPS to sit down and discuss pension contributions in an effort to save those positions. It also followed an emotional meeting of recently laid-off MTEA members, where instead of listening to union officials share information on unemployment as scheduled, the members begged the union to get their jobs back.

Unfortunately, MTEA President Bob Peterson has adopted the thinking of both mainstream American political parties – that any vote over 50 percent is a mandate. No concern for the 47.5 percent of members who wanted to discuss options with the school board, or the students and quality of education in Milwaukee.

“We did not cut over $80 million from MPS,” Peterson said in a statement released with the survey results. “We did not create the unfair state funding system that has underfunded MPS for decades. What we did do was to save the district tens of millions of dollars in the next two years through our concessionary contract negotiated last fall.”

That contract included a pay freeze for the 2009-10 school year with pay increases in the remaining three years and a 1- or 2-percent contribution from base salary for health insurance. There is no requirement in the contract for employee contributions toward either of the two pension plans provided to MTEA members.

This issue baffles me in so many ways. In 2010, teachers marched on the district offices in solidarity with their peers who were laid off in response to Gov. Jim Doyle’s $300 million education cuts. This year, when the union had an opportunity to do something to save the jobs of their fellow members, it looks like greed has taken over.

MPS teacher Ingrid Henry told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinelthat MTEA members made concessions last December and that was enough.

“I’m a firm believer in you get what you pay for,” she said. “I made the decision to send a message that this is a profession that requires hard work and dedication.”

And for 52.4 percent of the teachers, it sounds like that message is “I’ve got mine.”

And what happened to the oft-heard chant in Madison earlier this year by teachers from across the state? The one where they said they would make the concession payments?  Granted, it was a qualified chant, concessions in return for Walker and the Legislature taking the collective bargaining limits off the table. But it did make the unions look good at the time, and provided hope that there could be some compromise in these messed-up fiscal times.

But no, at least not in Milwaukee. Peterson won’t have any of that, firm in the belief that MTEA members have given enough and they’re not budging.

I’m not thrilled with the ham-handed way Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-led legislature handled the collective bargaining issue. I wasn’t surprised it happened, even if Walker never said the exact words during his campaign. All you had to do was watch his tenure as Milwaukee County Executive to know that he would do anything to tie the hands of public unions.

And I’m not a fan of cuts to public education. I’ve seen the devastation revenue caps and funding cuts have had on MPS, as well as suburban and rural districts across the state. Teachers laid off, programs cut, schools closed, districts forced to consolidate to save money and provide the bare minimum requirements.

But that’s all water under the bridge, I suppose. The bill passed, and even if the Democrats take control of the Senate this month, the funding cuts and collective bargaining limits won’t go away until they control both houses and the governor’s office.

Until then, we all have to work with what we have, and what we have is less money for public schools and word from almost half the MPS educators that they are willing to give some more to remain in the classroom.

Mr. Peterson, how does winning the battle help if you lose the war? When does making a point become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Go ahead MTEA, refuse to save the careers of some members now. Here’s what you will have in a few years: a district decimated by Baby Boomer retirements with no one willing to teach in a district with a demonstrated lack of cooperation between teachers and administration.

Go ahead MTEA, increase the size of classrooms. Then throw up your hands and say it wasn’t your fault as more students fall behind, leave school and take their lack of literacy and job skills into a world that demands them.

Blame everyone else.  Blame Scott Walker for cutting state aid. Blame Barack Obama for having stimulus funds expire at the end of the last budget year. Blame the parents who have taken advantage of school choice and found an educational system that works for them. But don’t take any blame for those lost teachers or lost children.

You’ve made your point.