Mary Bell WEAC
Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, speaks on the steps of the state Capitol on Wednesday evening, Feb. 16. She called for the state's teachers to come to Madison to protest GOP plans to end collective bargaining rights for state employees. M.P. King/State Journal

The state's largest teachers union Wednesday night called on all 98,000 of its members to attend rallies in Madison on Thursday and Friday, which led school districts — including Madison — to cancel classes for Thursday.

"This is not about protecting our pay and our benefits," Wisconsin Education Association Council President Mary Bell said at a press conference on the Capitol Square. "It is about protecting our right to collectively bargain."

In an interview, Bell said her message stopped short of endorsing the kind of coordinated action that closed Madison schools Wednesday. She asked teachers who "could" come to the rally to come.

As of press deadline, several Madison-area districts had canceled Thursday's classes. Middleton-Cross Plains union president Chris Bauman said she was encouraging all members to come to the Capitol at

8 a.m. Thursday.

Schools and teachers were a central focus at a third day of protests at the Capitol on Wednesday as Madison teachers and students joined thousands of public union workers to blast a plan to strip them of collective bargaining rights. Madison canceled school Wednesday after about 1,100 union teachers — almost half of its staff — called in sick by late Tuesday.

"This is the scariest thing I've ever seen," Betsy Barnard, a physics teacher at West High School, said of the Walker proposal. "This is going to change Wisconsin forever."

Barnard and other teachers at the rally said they are willing to make wage and benefit concessions to help fix the state budget, but Walker's plan to effectively dismantle the 50-year-old collective bargaining process for public employee unions goes too far.

She said it was harder to make the decision to call in sick Wednesday than it was in 1995, when nearly 2,000 teachers didn't go to work to protest contract negotiations.

"We risk our public image," Barnard said. Unlike 1995, however, the response from parents has been far more positive, she added.

 

Officials disputed the number of people at a noon rally, but it appeared the presence of Madison teachers — many with their own children — and students swelled the numbers beyond Tuesday's gathering, when 10,000 rallied outside of the Capitol and 3,000 more showed up inside to attend a budget hearing.

The state Department of Administration estimated 10,000 people attended the Wednesday rally. Madison police estimated the crowd at 20,000, spokesman Joel DeSpain said. The entire inner loop of the Square was closed to vehicle traffic, which wasn't the case Tuesday.

At the rally, parents carried infants and signs stating, "At our school we call this bullying" and "Will the National Guard teach my class?" Preschoolers repeated the popular slogan "kill this bill." Teachers young and old came ready to forfeit a day's pay to make their voices heard. DeSpain described demonstrators as "angry," "spirited" and "cordial."

West High School Senior Jacob Fiksel, who helped organize a march of about 600 students from Hilldale Shopping Center to the Capitol, said he read about Walker's proposal Sunday, but didn't realize the implications until a teacher Monday told him it would cause financial hardship. After 800 East High School students walked out Tuesday, Fiksel began planning Wednesday's march along with Memorial High School students.

"Everyone was ready to go out there and fight for the teachers," Fiksel said.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, speaking Wednesday at a labor-management collaboration conference in Denver, said Walker's proposal worries him, according to the Associated Press. Duncan's office said he has a phone call scheduled for Thursday with Walker but wouldn't elaborate on his reported comments.

The Wisconsin Association of School Boards also said this week it has concerns with Walker's proposal, saying it asked Walker and the Legislature to limit certain bargaining subjects, "but not everything."

The school boards association supports allowing districts to take several actions without bargaining, such as picking health insurance companies, contracting-out services, setting school year dates, ordering furloughs and basing layoffs on qualifications rather than seniority, executive director John Ashley wrote to the Joint Finance Committee.

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