Leah Lechleiter-Luke spent the better part of the last year travelling the state speaking about the profession she loves.
Tuesday afternoon, the 2010 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year travelled to Madison to protect it.
Luke, like many public employees, has responded unfavorably to Governor Scott Walker's proposed plan to fix the state's budget, which would limit their bargaining rights and require larger employee contributions to benefits.
"I definitely have a concern for this," said Luke. "We already have a very fragile economy - we're all clinging."
According to Luke, if Walker's proposal is passed, teachers could see a 10 percent decrease to their out-of-pocket pay.
"When [teachers at Mauston High School] did the math on this to figure how much teachers' wages will be reduced, it would take about $400,000 [per year] out of the economy [in Mauston]," she said. "Some of the households here have two teachers in the family. We're talking $8,000 or $9,000 less a year."
Luke's concerns are not purely financial.
"The bigger part is that we're losing that right to collectively bargain," she said. "We're going to move six decades backwards. We're moving back to a pre-fair labor marketplace."
Neil Rainford, who represents members of the three Juneau County union locals that are units of AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, likewise said Walker's proposal goes too far in eliminating public employees' ability to negotiate anything but wages.
"The governor is rushing through radical changes that would take away rights from workers, without making any effort to talk to those workers, much less negotiate a fair agreement with those workers," he said. "We are clearly willing to make sacrifices, but Walker's attempt to wipe away bargaining laws and relationships that have existed for over 50 years is unfair, unnecessary and not in the public's interest."
Al Peterson is chairman of the Juneau County Board of Supervisors and also heads the board's Union Negotiating Committee.
Peterson did not offer an opinion on the governor's plan but said that Walker should be credited for taking difficult steps toward getting the state's finances in order.
"We can't keep spending money we don't have," Peterson said. "Something has to happen."
Juneau County has successfully negotiated new agreements with three of the four unions that represent county employees.
Those negotiations yielded "deep concessions" from employees, according to Rainford. Employees agreed to 8.5 unpaid furlough days in each of the next two years.
Peterson said that, like other leaders in county governments across the state, he is taking a wait and see approach to pending action by the State Legislature and the governor's resolution of a possible impasse in the Legislature.
"We aren't doing much in the county until we see what he does," Peterson said. "But the county is short of money, too, and we're going to have to make drastic changes here before we have it under control."
Luke, too, said she understands the financial reality of the state's economy, but questions whether Walker's proposal will cause more problems than it solves, at least for public education in Wisconsin.
"We've always understood it's never been about the money [for teachers]," she said. "It's about the community. All we ask is we get treated with dignity."
What Walker's bill does
• Restricts public employees from negotiating everything except their wages.
• Does not affect police and fire workers.
• Limits wage increases to the rate of inflation.
• Requires any larger wage increase to be approved by referendum.
• Requires public employees to pay 5.8 percent of their pensions and 12 percent of their health care benefits.
• Requires that collective bargaining units take annual votes to maintain certification as a union.
• Prohibits employers from collecting union dues.
• Releases members of collective bargaining units from dues paying requirements.
• Authorizes restructuring of principal payments in the current budget for general obligation bonds, reducing debt payment costs by $165 million.
• Increases general revenue for Medicaid to cover an estimated $153 million deficit.
• Provides $22 million to address shortfalls in the prisons budget.
• Authorizes the Department of Administration to sell state heating plants, with the net proceeds deposited in the budget stabilization fund.