It turns out Wisconsin's controversial labor law reforms have indeed helped districts cope with their budgets without resorting to layoffs:

With ?collective bargaining rights? limited to wages, [Brown Deer district finance director Emily] Koczela was able to change the teachers' benefits package to fill the budget gap. Requiring teachers to contribute 5.8 percent of their salary toward pensions saved $600,000. Changes to their health care plan???such as a $10 office visit co-pay (up from nothing)???saved $200,000. Upping the workload from five classes, a study hall, and two prep periods to six classes and two prep periods saved another $200,000. The budget was balanced.

?Everything we changed didn't touch the children,? Koczela said. Under a collective bargaining agreement, she continued, ?We could never have negotiated that???never ever.?

With these savings in hand, the Brown Deer school district was able to avoid firing 27 teachers who had been pink slipped. Contrast that with Milwaukee, still under a legacy collective bargaining agreement, where the union refused to compromise on benefits, leading to 354 teacher layoffs. Districts that have flexibility under the new law seem to be using it effectively, saving jobs and programs without having to endure a protracted fight with unions.

It will be interesting to see how district managers and school boards use their new flexibility going forward. These initial results are heartening, suggesting the leadership limbo may be coming to an end in Wisconsin.

? Chris Tessone

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