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Judy Boehnen, 57, a Lodi custodian for 22 years, retired last week in the hope she can save the job of a night custodian, such as her granddaughter, Bridget Heins, left. The School District plans to subcontract for nighttime cleaning services after changes to public employee collective bargaining made it possible for districts to outsource services without negotiating with unions.

M.P. KING — State Journal

The Lodi School District plans to outsource its nighttime custodial staff at the end of the summer to save $150,000.

In Verona's summer school program, the most experienced teachers will be paid less per hour than they make during the school year, a move expected to help offset the cost of the growing program.

And the Oregon School Board has made it easier to discipline poorly performing employees, while expecting them to perform their job with a "positive attitude," which some teachers worry will stifle criticism of policies with which they disagree.

Those and other changes in benefits and work rules are contained in employee handbooks that will take effect Sunday for scores of Wisconsin school districts, including the majority of those in Dane County. The handbooks replace collective bargaining agreements in the wake of Act 10, the new law that limits collective bargaining for most public workers, including school employees.

"This is the new reality," said Bob Butler, a lawyer for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, which provided many districts with a model handbook. "They were definitely difficult discussions. But they were necessary given the financial constraints placed on districts."

In many districts over the past year, boards, administrators and employees worked together to fashion new handbooks based on the WASB model, expiring collective bargaining agreements, local board policies and handbooks from districts that had adopted them last summer.

Previously, collective bargaining agreements spelled out pay, benefits and work rules. That changed after Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature prohibited municipalities and school districts from negotiating with employees over things like health insurance and the school year calendar.

Walker has said the collective bargaining changes have given districts the "tools" to help offset the $750 million reduction in state education aid in the biennial budget. Lodi's ability to subcontract custodial services is an example, spokesman Cullen Werwie said.

"Now that school districts can pay based on performance and merit, they have the ability to improve education by rewarding the best and the brightest teachers, ultimately ensuring they stay in the classroom," Werwie said.

Unlike the collective bargaining agreements, which were negotiated in secret, the handbooks were discussed in open meetings, and local school boards, rather than state-appointed arbitrators, had final authority in settling the terms.

The amount of collaboration varied, and some provisions changed in response to employee concerns. But ultimately school boards adopted some policies that ruffled employees and their unions.

Some changes common

Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, acknowledged the changes won't necessarily be noticed by students and parents returning in the fall. But over time, she said, they will erode the quality of public schools.

"It isn't losing a limb or a dramatic car wreck — it happens bit by bit," Bell said.

For example, Bell said, employees in districts that have made discipline easier might be reluctant to criticize policies they see as not working. And teachers in districts that reduced time for teachers to confer with other staff about student performance won't be able to communicate concerns as effectively with parents, she said.

For the most part, districts adopting handbooks this year agreed to one-year union contract extensions in spring 2011 during the heat of the collective bargaining debate. Those contracts already included major changes to post-retirement benefits, insurance coverage and premium contributions.

A smaller number of districts, including Madison and Middleton-Cross Plains, approved two-year union contracts last spring and will be developing handbooks over the next year. Of the state's 424 districts, 156 did not sign contract extensions last spring, a State Journal investigation found. Almost all of them adopted handbooks last summer, Butler said.

Bell said the recent handbook process was less acrimonious than last summer, when some school boards had teachers pack public meetings to protest the changes.

Common changes in the handbooks have included ending the practice of laying off the newest teachers first, scaling back — but not eliminating — post-retirement benefits, and lowering standards for disciplining and dismissing employees, said Shana Lewis, a lawyer whose firm represents more than 100 state districts. Some districts, such as Waunakee, maintained the previous high standard for employee discipline.

Butler said many districts also added minutes to the work day and codified the procedure for the School Board to rule on employee grievances. Before Act 10, grievances were handled by outside arbitrators. Some districts, such as Monona Grove and Stoughton, narrowed what employees can grieve to disciplinary matters.

At the same time, districts for the most part did not overhaul salary schedules — which still are subject to collective bargaining — cut the amount of sick leave or rewrite codes of conduct, Lewis said.

"It's almost a free-market situation where the school districts are having to make these unilateral decisions because they can't bargain about it any more," Lewis said. "But they're not throwing everything out, because there still is good competition between districts for staff members."

'Morale is way down'

Judy Boehnen, 57, a custodian for 22 years in Lodi schools, said she retired this year partly because of uncertainty in how post-retirement benefits will change, but also so a nighttime employee, such as her granddaughter, could take her day shift.

The School Board recently voted to subcontract all but a few daytime custodial workers, something the union would have had to endorse under the old collective bargaining agreement. Boehnen said she made $16.77 per hour plus benefits, about twice as much as employees for a cleaning service make.

"The morale is way down," Boehnen said. "The bottom line is, with Walker's cuts to public education it really hurt the district."

In addition to subcontracting custodial services, Lodi laid off 11 teachers and increased class sizes to close a $1.2 million deficit, Superintendent Chuck Pursell said. The new handbook will allow the district to consider teacher performance before seniority in making future layoffs, but Pursell said the provision wouldn't have made a difference this year "because every single teacher I laid off was a good teacher."