How often do you find teachers, parents and tea party partisans on the same page regarding school spending?
That's the unusual scenario playing out in DeForest, thanks to a quiet deal resulting in salary increases of up to $26,000 a year for school administrators.
Meanwhile, the DeForest area school board recently voted to eliminate elementary teaching positions, increase class sizes and phase out German and French language offerings to address about $1.7 million in local school aid cuts anticipated from Gov. Scott Walker's proposed budget.
The hefty salary increases for about 20 administrators while the school district is trimming teaching staff and school programs has parents steaming.
"In a climate where most people are just grateful for a job, why are these kind of raises -- up to 20 percent and more -- necessary, especially all at once?" asks Terri Treinen, who has two young children in the DeForest school district and is a graduate herself of DeForest schools. Her husband is a teacher in the district.
Treinen says she had heard "rumblings and rumors" that significant raises for administrators went into effect early this year. But, she adds, "from looking through board meeting minutes online we couldn't find any record of public discussion and it's only been recently that we got the numbers. When it comes to transparency and school issues, this district is about as easy to see through as a window painted black."
DeForest Superintendent Jon Bales, who himself received a 5.1 percent raise and now receives $146,243 a year, notes the salary increases were approved by the school board almost a year ago on June 14, 2010. There is no indication in the minutes of the meeting that there was any public discussion of the proposed raises.
Like parents, teachers and other unionized employees in the district are also upset about these administrative salary increases. Over the last six months, district employees conceded over $700,000 in benefit dollars, and agreed to a pay freeze to help the district weather the financial storm.
"These kinds of pay raises at this time are most unusual. Frankly, it's shocking," says David White, the WEAC union representative who works with the DeForest teachers group. "As far as I can tell, they (the school board) granted very significant pay increases to administrative staff during roughly the same period they were arguing that there was very, very little money for negotiations."
Furthermore, the large salary increases for administrators might not have become public knowledge if union leaders had not asked to see current compensation figures for non-represented staff, says White, noting it is fairly routine for union representatives to ask for salary information for school administrators.
"If there's belt-tightening going on, we just want to check to see how the non-represented staff is faring," White says.
In April, following the ratification of an extended contract with district employees, local union leaders Rick Hill and Gayle McFarlane requested an update on administration compensation from the district's human resources department.
Initially, the administration deflected the request, saying the information was on a document the union had gotten the previous year, according to Hill, DeForest teachers union president, and White.
When Hill received the requested document with the current information he was "dumbfounded" by the new salary rates for administrators.
"Given the concessions we made, and the pressure we were under to hold the line financially, this felt like a slap in the face," Hill says.
The document, marked confidential, reveals that about 20 local school administrators got pay increases beginning in January 2011 that average over $10,000 from previous salary rates.
Bales says these salaries reflect two factors: a hike of around 2.5 percent per year from 2008/2009 salary levels, similar to what district union staff saw over the same time period, and a larger jump to bring compensation for DeForest administrators in line with comparable posts around Dane County.
Bales says DeForest administrators were making significantly less than their peers in the other 17 Dane County school districts.
In a few cases, the difference was just a couple of thousand dollars but in more than a dozen cases the difference was more than $8,000, and in several cases was more than $20,000.
According to Bales, school board policy in DeForest calls for paying staff at the average wage of the surrounding area or better. While this effort to pay an "average" wage for the county has been accomplished for union staff, it was deferred several times for administrators in recent years, he says.
"The board has wanted to treat all employees fairly. If you understand the guiding principle that we want to pay our staff at or above the Dane County market average, from a governance standpoint, these increases make sense," Bales says.
Though Bales says that is not uncommon for such financial issues to be approved by the board without public discussion, others are uncomfortable with what they see as a lack of transparency.
"For many of us, this isn't specifically a union issue, it's a public issue," Hill says. "If there's the feeling we're all going to pull together to make shared sacrifices to weather the storm, that's one thing. But if that's apparently not the case, and no one has had a chance to discuss this openly, that's a very different situation."