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Community Corner: On the new Employee Handbook
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“What do you want to be when you grow up young lady?”

“Well … when I grow up, I want to be a new school superintendent during perhaps the most politically tumultuous time in Wisconsin’s education history.”

It is pretty obvious that this conversation is pure fantasy. I don’t think anyone would ever really aspire to the role I found myself in this year, that of assisting the board in developing and approving the new employee handbook to take effect during the 2012–13 school year.

This process undertaken in the Platteville School District and in districts across the state had no clear roadmap to success and potentially many areas of contention. The process we used and the resulting handbook have been looked upon by employees from other districts as an example of how collaboration and respect for one another can occur in the context of handbook development.

As each major topic was taken on, I personally held listening/information sessions with staff members in the different buildings and gathered information on things they would like the board to consider as they made decisions related to that topic. The board then met in open session to discuss the feedback and provide direction for that section of the handbook.

The draft was sent out to staff to look at and offer feedback. The board addressed each topic two additional times at two separate board meetings. There were several instances where the board did listen to staff members and made changes from the original proposal.

The completed handbook was approved unanimously by the School Board on Monday, June 11 and can now be reviewed on our website. Is everyone completely happy with the result? I would be naïve or dishonest if I said yes. There is no perfect way to balance the needs and desires of students and their families, employees, and community taxpayers.
In the end, what will change for Platteville School District employees? I won’t go over every change in order to maintain readership, and instead will cover the major changes.

The compensation system for teachers no longer provides automatic salary increases for additional years of service or taking graduate credits. Teachers will need to show growth through completion of a professional growth portfolio that details academic achievement gains, instructional practice improvements, and reflection on parent and student feedback.

Our master teachers are now eligible for an additional $1,500 stipend, which would increase our wage ceiling to $67,051 or higher depending on negotiations for those that have at least 15 years, National Board Certification, and a master’s degree. Compensation for summer school will decrease and differentials paid and automatic wage increases for support staff employees will not continue.

Our “reduction of staff” procedure will change in that it is no longer solely tied to seniority — rather a combination of factors that also include job performance, experience in a specific position, and training. The new handbook language will make it easier for administrators to terminate an employee for performance issues. Non-probationary staff will require at least three cycles of being placed on a supported improvement plan and still failing to meet a proficient level of performance, prior to being terminated.

Interestingly, one of the more controversial changes was that professional staff will have to make up days that are dismissed due to weather or other emergency by engaging in professional development activities either during the school year or at the end of the school year. The $50,000 price tag attached to these days does not refer to additional cost the district has; rather to the cost of paying salaries for those days when school is not in session.

Certainly we understand that teachers work hours beyond their 7½-hour scheduled day. At the same time, I have consistently heard from staff that they are in need of additional inservice time for curriculum work and technology training. The change was an attempt to maximize the community taxpayer investment in our schools and at the same time to provide additional training for staff. Our support staff and administrators have always had to come into work, take personal leave time, or go without pay on those days.

Over and above the Wisconsin Retirement System benefit, the district contribution toward purchase of retiree health insurance will decrease and the number of years that district retirees may purchase into the district health insurance will be restricted to five years. As with most districts, money was never set aside to cover the cost of these promised benefits, leading to a situation where the benefits paid to retired staff were paid out of that year’s operating budget.

With approximately 60 percent of our staff 50 or older, left unchanged, the retirement provisions would have impacted the district’s ability to continue to provide the same level of programs and services to students and to compensate and provide benefits to remaining staff. Although decisions to retire are rarely based on a single factor, the benefit provided to eligible retirees is substantially higher than it will be for those retiring in future years and was likely a factor in the large number of employees making the decision this year.

Another unpopular change was to set the expectation of a business casual level of dress (generally considered khakis and collared shirts as opposed to T-shirts and jeans or shorts) unless the employee is engaged in clean-up activities, lab activities, physical fitness activities, or on field trips. It still allows flexibility for certain dress-up days or spirit days.

I have said from the beginning to employees that if you are comparing what “is” going forward to what “was” in the past, they are likely to be unhappy. At the same time, if you compare what the Platteville School District provides its employees, both in terms of compensation and benefits, to other districts in southwest Wisconsin, they will see that they continue to have the highest level of compensation and the best benefits in the area. I speak not only for myself, but for the board, when I say it is well-deserved.

In going back to my introduction, I don’t think anyone wants to grow up and take on the difficult task of decision-making that will never result in making everybody happy. I loved being a teacher, and in many ways miss the classroom. I remember thinking that if teachers who loved and cared about kids never went on to be principals, where would that leave the future of education? More recently, I remember thinking if people who loved being teachers and principals never left to become superintendents, who did that leave to take over the job at the top?

So no … as a young child, I never would have wished to grow up and take on many of the issues that I had to in the last year. I am sure the highly compensated board members (written tongue in cheek as the Platteville School board is one of very few uncompensated boards left in Wisconsin) would not have chosen to engage in this difficult process. Let’s face it … making people happy is much more fun than the alternative and more personally rewarding.

When I look around and hear stories from other districts over the last year, however, I am proud to have worked with a board that clearly cares about students and district employees, yet is forward-looking and responsible to the community taxpayers. I am also grateful to have worked in a district where the majority of employees were not always pleased with how things worked out, but did understand that difficult decisions had to be made if we were going to continue to meet the increased achievement demands going forward with the limited financial resources available.