RUSD teachers show up at meeting

Teachers from inside and outside of the Racine Unified School District pack the board room Monday at district headquarters to protest proposed changes to the employee handbook.

RICARDO TORRES, ricardo.torres@journaltimes.com

RACINE — The Racine Education Association eked out a victory at the hands of the Racine Unified School Board, which voted 5-4 Monday to defer a vote on the proposed changes to the employee handbook.

Dozens of teachers packed the board room at Monday’s meeting to hear the debate among the School Board members.

No timeline was set for the district to complete revisions “until the superintendent establishes an authentic collaborative process with employees and union representatives,” as stated in the motion. There was an attempt to have the changes completed before the Sept. 11 School Board meeting. but with the school year set to begin on Sept. 5, Superintendent Lolli Haws said it would be a difficult task for the district to complete.

School Board members John Heckenlively, Steve Hooper, Julie McKenna, Michelle Duchow and Michael Frontier voted in favor of the deferment; and Matthew Hanser, Brian O’Connell, Dennis Wiser and School Board President Robert Wittke voted against the deferment.

Angelina Cruz, president of the REA, said the union was not involved in the revision process and she’s hopeful to come to some agreement with the district to change that.

“I am thankful to the board members that recognize it’s important to have the voices of the employees involved in the major changes in this district,” Cruz said. “I’m glad we finally have the opportunity to sit down and really get to do the work of the district with the administration.”

Cruz said the employee handbook is a topic parents should care about.

“The proposed employee handbook that they were considering severely limited teacher voice,” Cruz said. “That’s a concern of parents because we’re the first ones to speak up and speak out for their children.”

Issues with Act 10

There were questions regarding whether the current employee handbook complies with Act 10, which bars public employees from negotiating for benefits. Specifically, the legality of the Board of Adjustments was questioned by Wiser.

The Board of Adjustments is defined by the current handbook as being “comprised of equal representation of the District and the authorized representative of the teaching staff. It will convene at least quarterly (in January, April, July and October) to consider the appropriate level of benefits, plan design, structure, premium contributions and all other issues related to health, dental and disability benefits.”

Frontier said it’s important to have the employee handbook comply with state law, but recognized teachers don’t feel like an equal partner in this process.

“Because this decision is essential to a strong teaching learning community, which we’re all about, we need to put this behind us in a reflective and compassionate way, a way that’s not heartbreaking,” Frontier said.

Hanser said the School Board has been working with the district for nine months to come up with an appropriate handbook.

“I’m extremely frustrated at this point,” Hanser said, adding someone contacted his employer about this topic. “I’ve been in education for 24 years … it is not OK to be calling my employer so that I have to take time out of my work day to address that concern. That individual who did that will remain nameless, but please know that when you do things like that, you drive the wedge further.”

Wittke said the School Board had an opportunity to do what the members were elected to do.

“If there were concerns, we had several months to voice those concerns and formulate other responses or formulate other things to put into this,” Wittke said.

With the vote to defer the handbook changes until a collaborative process takes place between the district and its employees, a new employee handbook could be months away and could be finalized during the school year.

Wittke said the School Board was given an opportunity to lead and he’s disappointed the changes weren’t approved.

“I’m trying to understand where are we going now with this to do something different? What is in there that is not acceptable?” Wittke said. “I think we had a real opportunity here to set a totally different tone on how the board operates ... we had a chance to put in a process that meets challenges and finds solutions and instead we fell short.

“But that’s why there’s nine people elected, that’s why there’s a vote, you have to go through the process and go from there.”

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