Since Act 10 was signed into law in 2011, public school teachers unions and local school districts in Wisconsin have been barred from negotiating collective bargaining agreements.
However, early on, the Kenosha Education Association and the Kenosha Unified School District butted heads over whether that restriction also prohibited the parties from meeting altogether, either formally or informally, to confer on matters affecting teachers and other represented union members.
Within the past year or so, that view seems to have softened, as there have been several “meet and confer” sessions between district administration and the KEA.
School Board president Tamarra Coleman and Superintendent Sue Savaglio-Jarvis said they must remain conscious of certain restrictions under current state law, but they welcome the sessions as another means of gathering input.
KEA Executive Director Chris Perillo, a former Unified high school teacher, said the sessions are worthwhile because they allow the parties to engage on issues affecting students, teachers and support staff.
“There’s no limitation on what we can discuss,” Perillo said. “The only limitation is we can’t come up with a binding, written agreement. That would violate Act 10. My understanding is we can meet and confer on anything as long as there isn’t an enforceable understanding.”
Perillo said he feels the sessions contribute to “robust dialogue.”
“I think they’re always worth it. I think anytime we have an opportunity to work with the district in a discussion format is good for the best interests of the students. The less we do that, the worse that is,” Perillo said.
“It can only help what’s happening in the district. It helps the people working in the classroom, and it helps the students have a better educational experience.”
“Anytime we’re meeting with staff or hearing their opinion and getting their voice, I don’t think that’s ever a negative,” Coleman said.
At the same time, Coleman said nothing she has heard in the sessions has surprised her.
“They’re things that we already kind of know about. So, it’s confirming or providing us information that we need that can drive the next decision,” she said.
While Perillo said he would like to see monthly meet-and-confer sessions, Coleman based on her conversations with school board counterparts around the state, “the norm was two or three times a year.”
“Some districts, don’t do a lot of staff surveys like we do in Kenosha Unified. So, we grab a lot of opportunities to get staff feedback,” Coleman said. “I think that it’s really important for the board to collaborate with all staff and to collaborate as often as we can.”
Savaglio-Jarvis also supports the sessions.
“I always find it important to stay open, remain engaged, ask questions,” she said.
As an example, she cited a session regarding better ways to conduct parent-teacher conferences. Another looked at how to address finding substitutes on short notice.
“Those were about having to ask, ‘How do we balance work and life with all that our staff and educators have to do today with so much on their plate?’” Savaglio-Jarvis said.
She said the value of meet-and-confer is greater than simply the district and board sitting across the table from the KEA.
“We’re all here to serve our community,” Savaglio-Jarvis said. “It’s important that we stay engaged. We try to hear all voices, to listen. There can be more than two sides to a story. ... In a large district, it’s a process that has to happen, and it takes time”