On a scale of 1 to Act 10

State law has mixed support and varied impact locally

May 29, 2012

Whether Act 10 has passed or failed with locals schools depends who you ask.

In both Greenfield and the West Allis-West Milwaukee school districts, parents and students might give it a passing grade. Few say they have noticed any difference in the classroom or in after-school activities this year, after Act 10, and last year, before Act 10.

"There's not a dime's worth of difference," Paul Pacyga said from his vantage point as the father of a Nathan Hale High School student.

But a few Greenfield elementary school parents reported fewer art supplies and seemingly fewer field trips while some West Allis high-schoolers report bigger classes.

School officials give Act 10 a passing grade, saying it gives them more flexibility in how they deal with needs and enables them to avoid layoffs and balance the budget, which was further stressed after the state withdrew aid to solve its own budget crisis.

West Allis is even managing to add classes and educational initiatives, post Act 10. Greenfield is also hanging tough.

Teacher perspective

But Act 10 leaves some teachers working more and others frustrated and some scared.

In Greenfield, teachers are working eight more days, said Doug Perry, Greenfield Education Association president. Others calculate the additions here and there at closer to four or five days.

But Greenfield teacher pay has been frozen and Perry estimates teachers have 5.9 percent less take-home pay than they did last year.

In West Allis, frustration is high, said Angela Bina, president of the West Allis-West Milwaukee Education Association.

"We are not being treated as valued professionals," she said.

Suddenly, being good in the classroom doesn't seem to be good enough, Bina said, adding that teachers now feel pressured to volunteer for committees and extra activities.

Impact on prep time

Teachers also have less preparation time and that time can be lost if other things come up, and there is generally less time to work with students, she said.

But Superintendent Kurt Wachholz said that teachers had agreed to give up one prep time to collaborate with other teachers. That was agreed to in a memorandum of understanding negotiated with teachers shortly before Act 10 went into effect and after their teacher contract expired.

There is still time to work with students during and after school, said Wachholz, noting that teachers have always stayed well after the last bell to help students.

Bina agreed.

"This has always been the case," she said, "but it has increased over a very short period of time."

Even so, students are not suffering.

"We have a very dedicated, professional staff who will do what it takes to help students," she said.

Programming after Act 10

In fact, the teachers' professionalism has aided the district's efforts to go forward with new initiatives at every level.

Programs such as inquiry-based learning at the elementary schools, online learning programs for literacy and study skills at the intermediate schools, and blended learning classes (with live teacher instruction supplemented by online instruction) at the high schools have all started to take hold after Act 10, Wachholz said.

Music offerings have been expanded as has staff support for student councils, parents added.

Wachholz also emphasized that the schools have not raised class sizes, although some classes may have hit the upper end of the class size range, which probably was noticed by some of the high school students, he said.

As to the future

But administrators and teachers all have misgivings about the future.

Short-term, the Act 10 tools are helping the Greenfield schools balance the budget in the face of aid and revenue cap cuts, Superintendent Conrad Farner said.

But if pay and benefits are continually cut to the point that becoming a teacher is no longer attractive to people with the necessary skills, there will be little chance that students will achieve all they can, Farner said.

His teachers are thinking the same thing.

"I work with student teachers and many are re-evaluating whether they will pursue a teaching position in Wisconsin or a career in education at all," Greenfield's Perry said.

"Understanding all of these pressures on teachers (both present and future), it is easy to imagine a time when it will be difficult to attract the best and brightest teachers to the profession as well as retaining those gifted educators who are currently teaching in Greenfield schools," Perry said.

Farner said that for two years, the Greenfield schools have survived on federal stimulus funds and revenue from the state Open Enrollment program that reimburses schools for accepting nonresident students. He lays Greenfield's financial woes at the door of 20 years of state revenue caps that he said have had a worse impact on Greenfield than Act 10.

Greenfield didn't even use all the so-called "tools" Act 10 gave to have teachers pay more toward health and pensions. It's holding back a little because of a $1.7 million deficit the district expects next year.

Employees had already been paying 10 percent of their health insurance before Act 10 and the health plan was changed as of Jan. 1, so the district saw no reason to go to 12.5 percent as Act 10 allows, he said. But that may come, as the district suffers further financial losses, he said.

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