Contentious cuts to teachers’ benefits pushed by Gov. Scott Walker last year offset about two-thirds of the reductions to school revenue, according to a new study.
The report by the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance shows school districts across Wisconsin collectively cut spending on health and pension benefits by about $287 million in the 2011-2012 academic year as the result of cuts to public worker benefits and limits on collective bargaining.
Bill Froelich, executive director of the South Central Education Association — which represents teachers in Baraboo, Portage and Sauk Prairie — said changes to collective bargaining rules may have allowed districts to reduce costs in 2011-2012. However, he said, those same cost reductions won’t be available in future years without additional cuts to salaries and benefits, which could impact the quality of education schools provide.
“When you look at school districts, the primary cost involved is salaries and benefits,” Froelich said. “I don’t think you can continue to cut into those things.
“We’re trying to attract quality people to the profession. To run schools without offering quality pay or quality benefits, that’s ultimately going to impact kids.”
The Alliance found the benefit cuts offset about 64 percent of the $451 million decrease in revenue for school districts imposed by Walker and Republican lawmakers as part of their efforts to balance the budget last year.
The analysis used data from the more than 420 Wisconsin school districts collected by the state Department of Public Instruction, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
“This clearly shows that the benefits did generate a fair amount of money where districts limited them,” said Todd Berry, president of the Alliance, a nonpartisan think tank that analyzes taxing, spending and other budget-related issues.
In addition to sharply reducing aid to schools, Walker and GOP lawmakers dropped by more than 5 percent the cap on how much money schools can raise through state aid and local property taxes.
Walker and Republican legislators passed legislation ending most collective bargaining for teachers and many other public workers and then required most public employees to pick up at least half of the contributions to their pensions. The legislation also required state workers to pay 12 percent of their health insurance premiums and allowed schools to require the same of their employees.
The collective bargaining changes spawned massive rallies at the state Capitol and unprecedented recall elections.
Walker’s tools allowed the Baraboo School District to switch health insurance providers from the state teachers’ union plan to Dean Health Plan. That, along with the mandated increase in employee pension contributions, resulted in about $1.5 million in savings. But that did not entirely make up for a $1.6 million decrease in state aid for 2011-2012.
A large increase in teacher retirements led the district to hire a large number of young staff. Almost one-third of the district’s teachers now are in their first year.
District Administrator Crystal Ritzenthaler said the current path — in which the state cuts aid, restricts property tax revenue, but allows benefit cuts — is not sustainable.
She said the shift to a larger proportion of young teachers “requires more support and resources with the loss of the teaching experience.”
Because of new open enrollment legislation, the Baraboo School Board approves open enrollment requests at nearly every meeting, Ritzenthaler said, adding that offering competitive salaries and benefits will help the district remain attractive.
“We have a strong foundation in staffing, curriculum and professional development that we want to maintain,” Ritzenthaler said. “We also have aging building systems and facilities that we are unable to address through our regular budget.”
The Alliance report also noted that the savings from the offsets would have been higher, but some districts still have valid contracts which include different terms.
Under a reform proposal released Monday by state Superintendent Tony Evers, state public school aid would increase $615 million over the next two years. Baraboo would see an increase of nearly $900,000, about 5 percent.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.