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RACINE — A cry of outrage rose out of scores of unionized Racine Unified School District employees Monday evening after the School Board approved the district’s changes to the employee handbook in a 5-3 vote.

Just before 10 p.m., the School Board voted for a 10-minute recess after debating for about an hour. Extra police were being called to the school administrative offices as a precaution, police radio traffic indicated.

The meeting was an important moment in a debate that has gone on in various forms for more than seven months, embittering relations between the district and its unions and dividing the School Board into two factions during that time.

District administrators have said the changes first presented in April — several of which will curtail certain benefits for senior employees — are meant to improve learning conditions for students and working conditions for employees, and to find cost savings for the district.

However, leaders of the district’s two largest employee unions have fiercely criticized the changes — and Superintendent Lolli Haws for her part in proposing them — as eroding working conditions, damaging employee morale and taking power away from teaching staff.

One particularly controversial change will end a preference that senior employees currently have to fill open positions throughout the district and will allow principals to hire whichever candidate they choose regardless of seniority. Currently, the school principal must pick among the two most senior candidates who qualify, according to administrators.

Another divisive change will set a flat hourly wage for extra work by teachers that goes beyond their normal duties, such as teaching an extra course or teaching summer school. This would replace a system of giving pay for extra work based on a percentage of the teacher’s overall salary, meaning that veteran teachers make more for this work than their less-experienced colleagues.

Meeting

More than 100 people attended Monday’s meeting at the district’s administrative service campus, 3109 Mount Pleasant St., not including some people who stood outside the room. Many of those who attended were unionized district employees or community supporters.

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About a dozen people addressed the board during a public comment period that lasted about 30 minutes. Most of those speaking were district employees or their supporters who spelled out reasons why the board should not approve the handbook changes, including that the changes would devalue the experience and credentials of veteran teachers and that the changes to filling vacant positions would make it easier for administrators to engage in discrimination and favoritism.

“The changes to this handbook being proposed are an assault on public education and we believe are tied to the right-wing forces in this state. The changes being proposed tonight will lead to conflict,” said Jen Levie, president of the Racine Education Association teachers union. “We are making progress, so it does not make sense that the Board of Education and the current administration are looking to undermine a handbook that has brought so much growth and stability to our students and our community.”

Levie renewed invitations to meet with the district to discuss changes.

The School Board debated for about an hour, with some members closely questioning particular policies in the handbook, such as how changing the policy for paying for extra work might push the district to overload teachers with extra classes instead of hiring more teachers.

Haws noted that the district is not intending to use this new system as a way to dodge the cost of hiring new teachers.

Ultimately, President Melvin Hargrove, Pamala Handrow, Chuck Goodremote, Kim Plache and new member John Koetz voted to approve the changes. Julie McKenna and Dennis Wiser joined Don Nielsen in voting against the changes. Nielsen announced at the beginning of the meeting that Mike Frontier would be absent from the meeting awaiting the birth of a grandchild.

Aside from the changes to filling vacancies and pay for extra work, other changes include increasing a financial penalty on teachers who break their contract and quit as school is about to start, and offering two personal days at a full day’s wages instead of the half-pay they currently receive.

The changes do not include any revision of Section 13 of the employee handbook, which requires unions and administrators to form a committee on handbook changes and work towards consensus.

This part of the handbook eventually became an even more divisive issue than the original handbook changes and meetings of the handbook committee were halted in June due to concerns that they were illegal.

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