Practically Speaking

Kyle and her husband moved to Brookfield in 1986. She became active in local politics and started blogging in 2004. Her focus is primarily on local issues but often includes state and national topics, too. Kyle looks at things from the taxpayers' perspective in a creative, yet down to earth way, addressing them from a practical point of view.

End to school QEO and Revenue Caps?

Education, TAXES

Jay Weber 8:10 hour tuesday, Cap Times 

QEO on the way out: But what does that do to overall school funding?

MADISON � After three unsuccessful attempts, Gov. Jim Doyle and leaders of the state’s newly Democratic Legislature appear poised to repeal a controversial law that effectively caps the pay of the state’s 60,000 teachers.

The Democratic governor said he’ll seek next year to end the “qualified economic offer,” which since 1993 has allowed school districts to impose a minimum wage-and-benefit package if bargaining fails to produce an agreement. Doyle said the law has let the cost of teachers’ benefits soar at the expense of their salaries.
“By getting rid of the QEO we’ll finally see in Wisconsin a variety of different compensation packages emerge from what we’ve been locked into for (15) years � depressed teacher salaries, rising benefit costs and nobody very happy with where we’re at,” Doyle said.

Supporters of the QEO said repealing it would make it impossible for schools to survive under state-imposed revenue caps and would threaten the state’s more-than-decade-old system of paying for schools.

“The QEO has probably been one of the most effective tools we’ve had in keeping some type of control in place on property taxes,” said Senate Minority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, saying school board members “are scared to death” of losing it.

Both sides agreed chances for a repeal seem stronger than ever, since Democrats now control the Legislature and the move, at least in the short term, wouldn’t cost the state any money.

With the state facing a $5.4 billion projected budget shortfall, however, other big changes in how Wisconsin pays for its schools will be more challenging.

Those include revisiting the state’s commitment to pay two-thirds of school costs and per-pupil revenue caps of 3 percent a year � the other two legs of what has been described, with the QEO, as the three-legged stool of school finance � and which supporters credit with helping hold down local property tax increases.

The QEO law allows school districts to avoid potentially costly arbitration on union contracts as long as they offer teachers a yearly wage and benefit increase of 3.8 percent or more.

Since the law took effect in 1993, the average increase in teachers’ salary-and-benefit packages has hovered around 4 percent a year, compared to more than 7 percent in the years immediately preceeding the change.

But the law also bars districts from unilaterally reducing benefits, meaning health insurance costs can eat up much of the allowable increase.

Dale Knapp, research director for the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, said that Wisconsin’s salaries for all teachers are usually at or above national averages but that benefits are usually among or near the top five states in the country.

A willing partner

Glenn Schmidt, 59, a veteran special education teacher at Northside Elementary School in Sun Prairie, said Wisconsin teacher salaries under the QEO are no longer competitive with those of surrounding states. That discourages good people from entering the profession, he said.

That was echoed by Mary Bell, president of the powerful teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, whose group has pushed to eliminate the QEO.

“I don’t think it’s any secret that we think the QEO should be eliminated,” said Bell, whose union spent more than $2 million to help Democrats win control of the Assembly this fall. “It’s not productive for our school districts or my members.”

The union appears to have found a willing partner in the next Legislature. Already, state schools superintendent Libby Burmaster has included repealing the QEO in her budget request to Doyle. Carrie Lynch, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker, D-Weston, said Decker supports a repeal, and Senate Democrats voted for it in the last budget. Assembly Speaker-elect Mike Sheridan, D-Janesville, said Democrats in his house would be “looking at it very closely.”

But Beloit homeowner Dwight Brass said he feared school boards would end up allowing teachers’ pay to rise too much, and with it property taxes. “The trend would be the school board would want to avoid conflict” with the union, he said.

Dan Rossmiller, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said removing the QEO while leaving revenue caps in place would mean disaster for schools. Their main expense � teacher salaries � would grow much faster than their revenues would be permitted to grow, he said.

“It’s certainly going to mean cuts in teachers’ positions if it does go away,” he said of the QEO.

Fitzgerald, the Senate minority leader, said Republicans planned to fight any effort to repeal the law but conceded they likely wouldn’t be able to stop it.

Modest aid boost

Madison schools superintendent Dan Nerad is sympathetic to both sides. He said the QEO appears to be making it harder for his district to recruit for some high-demand jobs such as English as a second language and bilingual teachers and teachers of special needs students. But to be fair to districts, Nerad said the QEO and the revenue caps have to be taken up as a package.

Yet, the troubled state budget makes it harder for the state to increase its aid to schools. With only a modest increase in aid expected, Doyle said he’s wary of relaxing revenue caps so much that homeowners could see a big increase in their property tax bills.

“We’ve got to be very, very careful not to push (the state budget problems) onto the property tax,” Doyle said.

He added that, while “it’s real hard to see how you can change the whole system right now, I’ve always thought you could get rid of the QEO and keep the caps.”

Even Bell of WEAC, a group that has also strongly opposed the revenue caps, signaled that, for now, they may stay in place.

“I don’t know that in the next session that’s possible but it’s certainly something we need to talk about,” Bell said of a repeal of the caps.

Wisconsin State Journal reporter Mark Pitsch contributed to this report.


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