Serving Whose Interests?

Jeff Ziegler is a “teacher leader” in the Madison Metropolitan School District who has never made any secret of his disdain for Gov. Scott Walker. Openly critical of the budget-repair bill that virtually eliminated collective bargaining, he didn’t just sign the recall petition against the governor. He circulated it and spoke up publicly at a school board meeting in his hometown of Marshall during the height of the protests in March 2011.

“I’d just like to say I do not support what the governor’s doing, with this motion to eliminate collective bargaining of public employees,” he was quoted as saying. “I am very disappointed in the WASB, the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, for initially coming out and supporting this and characterizing it as, I believe they said, it balanced the negotiations.

“I don’t see how you could characterize giving one side total control and the other side nothing and calling that balanced,” he said.

Both the protests and the recall, of course, fell short. And chances are the effort of the union to which he belongs, Madison Teachers Inc., to nullify the law in the courts will fail, too. But that doesn’t mean Ziegler, who said he was speaking only on behalf of himself that night, has no influence over how his local school board in Dane County — which he suggested has too much power — makes decisions.

Quite the opposite.

Like many other teachers, former teachers and union leaders in Wisconsin, Ziegler is a longtime member of his local board. Not long after he spoke out against Walker and the new negotiating leverage Wisconsin school boards have, he became the Marshall School Board’s president.

In Marshall, a village of 3,900 in northeast Dane County, the old lament that “the teachers are running the place” turns out to be literally true.

The Wisconsin attorney general opined almost 35 years ago that the legal “doctrine of incompatibility” prevents teachers and other staff from simultaneously serving as school board members in the districts in which they work. But there’s nothing to stop them from serving on boards in nearby districts where they live or, immediately after they retire, running in the same districts that long employed them.

Many do. And when that happens, a Wisconsin Interest investigation shows, they often appear to use their school board platforms and connections less as a management mechanism than as a way to advance the interests of unions and teachers — and sometimes, perhaps, themselves.

The investigation comes at a critical time and illustrates just how much influence board members can have in a new era where debate and power have shifted from Madison to hundreds of local districts across the state.

There is no database that keeps track of what board members throughout Wisconsin do for a living. Marshall, though, is far from unique. The current presidents in three of the six largest school districts in the state — Kenosha, Racine and Appleton — are retired teachers. A fourth district, Madison, has a former Madison teacher as vice president. The head of the state’s largest district, the Milwaukee Public Schools, teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and is married to an MPS district administrator. (Eight of nine MPS board members are either current or retired public employees.)

Similar situations — teachers and former teachers on boards — can be found in smaller districts all over the state, from Menomonie to Marathon to Marshall to Manitowoc. The Manitowoc board, in fact, includes three retired teachers, two of whom once worked in the same schools they now oversee.

It’s not just teachers who often serve on boards. Folks who have made or make a living advancing teacher interests serve as well. In Menomonie, board member Frank Burdick is a former field representative and political action consultant for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, who, according to a story in the local paper, fondly recalls taking part in the infamous Hortonville teachers strike. In the Glendale-River Hills district just north of Milwaukee, board member Bryan Kennedy is the president of the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin.

“Isn’t this a clear conflict of interest?” district resident Dave Daniels, asked board president Bob Roska in an e-mail sent last year during the height of the teacher protests in Madison, which Kennedy helped lead. “How can someone who represents a teachers union fairly negotiate teacher salaries and benefits?”

Roska responded that Kennedy “brings a very balanced perspective to the board” and is not on the negotiating committee. And Kennedy points out that AFT does not represent employees in the Glendale-River Hills School district.

That’s true, Daniels acknowledges. The union that represents teachers in the Glendale-River Hills district is affiliated with WEAC rather than AFT. But he is still concerned.
Kennedy “represents teachers and he will represent them when it comes to school board matters whether they are his teachers or not,” says Daniels.

“You can’t serve two houses equally,” adds Bruce Brocker, who ran unsuccessfully against Kennedy in the last election. “You can’t be president of a union and serve them 100 percent, and be on a school board and serve them 100 percent.”

Back in Marshall, Ziegler has what some might consider more direct conflicts of interest. As a Madison teacher, he is a member of a union affiliated with WEAC — just like the teachers in the district he presides over. Then there is this: Ziegler was already president of the Marshall School Board in August 2011 when his colleagues voted 6-0 to hire his wife, Mary Jo Ziegler, to be Marshall’s director of instruction — a job that pays her $85,000 a year in salary and another $21,000 in benefits.

The hiring of Mary Jo Ziegler — who prior to that was an education consultant for DPI paid an hourly rate of $36.70 — never became a controversial public issue. Nor, perhaps, was it widely known.

“No, I was not aware of that. That really frustrates me,” says David Waddell, a Marshall School District taxpayer who has criticized the district in recent years. He thinks the hiring could create problems and put the district in a difficult situation, especially if Mary Jo Ziegler’s performance is sub-standard.

Superintendent Barb Sramek and both Jeff and Mary Jo Ziegler defend the situation. Mary Jo Ziegler says she wanted to work in the district because of its diversity.
The job was posted both internally and elsewhere, according to Sramek, and drew 16 applicants. Jeff Ziegler — who is prohibited by Wisconsin law from voting on anything that involves a substantial benefit for a member of his family — was absent the night the board voted to hire her last year. He notes that he also stays out of discussions that involve her, just as, he says, he refrains from negotiating with the teachers in the district who, like him, are members of unions affiliated with WEAC.

Given all the potential conflicts and issues Ziegler must refrain from involving himself in, Wisconsin Interest asked him why he serves on the Marshall School Board at all. The school board job, after all, pays him only $1,533 per year — a mere fraction of the $60,000 he makes as a Madison teacher.

“Because I think I have something to offer,” he said, standing in the library of the elementary school after the district’s annual meeting. “Having someone with an education background is valuable to a school board. I bring my perspective the way everyone else brings theirs.”

Bryan Kennedy, the AFT-Wisconsin president who sits on the Glendale-River Hills board, makes a similar argument. He points out that he is the only person with an education background — he has taught at UWM — on the board. Rather than sit on a negotiating committee, he adds, he serves on the curriculum and policy committees.

Yes, he concedes, he supports collective bargaining. But he argues that it’s not just good for teachers, it’s good for the district as a whole because it promotes “best practices.”

Some taxpayers in the district are still upset that those practices included canceling school so teachers could join protests against Walker and Act 10 that Kennedy was helping lead in Madison. For his part, Kennedy insists that he knows he’s management when he sits on the school board. He points out that even before Act 10, the teachers in the district were required to make contributions to both their pensions and health insurance — proof, he suggests, that a conciliatory approach can be mutually beneficial to taxpayers and teachers alike.

Dennis Wiser is another union leader heading a school board. A former president and executive director of the Racine Education Association, he is now president of the Racine School Board.

Wiser, as board president in a large city, gets a lot of e-mail, not all of it complimentary. When the board was negotiating new employee agreements during the debate over collective bargaining, residents accused him and other board members of everything from being “shills for the unions” to being “irresponsible” to being “blatantly pro-union and anti-taxpayer.”

Wiser invariably responded with a form letter stating that he shared concerns about spending, opposed a new central office and did not support a higher-spending referendum. He also argued that contracts would include benefit reductions deeper than the ones proposed by Walker.

Of course, Wiser has his admirers as well. One teacher thanked him for ratifying a new contract, adding, “It’s nice to know you haven’t forgotten your roots.” Another noted that she had taught in the district for 30 years and wrote, “It was great working with you again!”

Just to the south, in Kenosha, both current board President Mary Snyder and board member Jo Ann Taube are also former district teachers and union leaders. (Taube was once president of the Kenosha Education Association.) For years, a third board member was a former district teacher as well.

Gilbert “Gib” Ostman taught social studies and drivers education in the Kenosha district for approximately 30 years before serving on the board. Ostman sent an e-mail to Kenosha Superintendent Michele Hancock after Kenosha teachers skipped school to protest Act 10, suggesting she cozy up to the teachers behind closed doors:

“Those PUBLIC EMPLOYEES are attempting to find a solution to not lose those ‘Rights of Public Employees’ that were established over 50 years ago. They are standing up to protect the right to ‘BARGAIN CONTRACTS FAIRLY’!

“Dr. Hancock, I know you cannot support the actions that teachers are taking on a statewide basis, behind the scenes is a different story, however. If teachers are only verbally reprimanded rather than suspended without further pay loss, or terminated from their position, [it] would speak volumes as to how much you appreciate our employees,” wrote Ostman, who left the board later that year.

District employees in Kenosha clearly see their former colleagues as conduits for their agendas.

“Having been a teacher, Mary, you know how important it is to hold on to collective bargaining rights. We all work hard and do important work for the district. This is not too much to ask for,” wrote one employee in a note to Snyder seeking contract extensions last year.

Such pleas seemed to work. During the tumult in Madison, the Kenosha board quickly settled contract extensions with everyone from secretaries to educational assistants to carpenters and painters, albeit contracts that included pay freezes and retirement and health insurance contribution increases.

Districts like Racine and Kenosha are still working under extended teacher contracts and living in a world that seems like an ancient memory in places with boards that embraced the Walker reforms.

In Kenosha this summer, for instance, the administration wanted to alter schedules at elementary schools until a union leader informed the district that he was going to file a grievance. School Board member Bob Nuzzo — an engineer and businessman — threw in the towel. But only for a time.

“Let everyone work to the contract,” he wrote to his fellow board members in a June e-mail. “Then evaluate each teacher on their performance for next year, giving contracts for 2013 to only those teachers who perform to OUR expectations. We must provide the best possible education for our students!!”

The exchange shows just how much things could change — and in some districts, already have. Depending on who has the votes.

It would be unfair to assume that all teachers on boards will always side with their former colleagues in the classroom. Indeed, while Act 10 motivated teachers and union members to rally together in many places, it also exposed fissures in union solidarity. One teacher who sent a confidential e-mail to the superintendent in Kenosha last year frankly commented on the “nature of the union that makes some timid about speaking up.”

“You are aware that ‘mob mentality’ incites fear amongst the weaker and the onlookers and causes people to hold back their voices,” the teacher wrote to Hancock. “I don’t come from Kenosha and am related to nobody here so I am less intimidated. Others (even some administrators) are intimidated by the fire of the union and the way people are connected and talk.”

Others in the district, at about the same time, e-mailed Kenosha board members recommending everything from getting rid of elementary school orchestra lessons, to not requiring counselors to attend all in-service programs, to sharing librarians as a way of saving money. Many of the changes would involve bargaining — though, assuming a ruling by Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas restoring bargaining is overturned, not for long.

Even the contracts in places like Kenosha and Racine and Milwaukee will expire eventually. That happened in Marshall earlier this year. In place of the contract, a work group that includes staff as well as administrators and school board members put together a handbook that scales back costly post-retirement health insurance benefits and requires employees to pick up a modest percentage of contributions to health insurance premiums and pensions. It also retains some benefits that aren’t typically found in the private sector.

For instance, teachers still get 12 sick days per year and the total can accumulate to 187.
Sramek defends the board’s approach, saying, “Their priorities are always in the right place. It’s about the kids, not their connections or ties.”

The board will — from here on out — have ample opportunity to prove or disprove Sramek’s assertion.

That same night as the Marshall board meeting, and not long after the Dane County Circuit Court ruling restoring at least some elements of collective bargaining, the Madison School Board voted to resume bargaining with Madison Teachers Inc., the union Ziegler belongs to.

In Marshall, according to Sramek, there had been no such discussions by Wisconsin Interest’s deadline. “I believe that most of us view our status as wait-and-see,” she stated in an e-mail. “My understanding is that the recent Dane County decision has been subject to misinterpretation as to the scope of the ruling. Information seems to emerge each day. It does make for interesting times!”

It does.

The Marshall School District is strapped for cash. Voters on Nov. 6 approved a school board-sponsored referendum to spend $1.5 million more for operations over the next three years than currently allowed under levy limits — a budget tactic numerous other boards such as Glendale-River Hills are planning to use or have already used.

Absent successful referendums, though, many districts will continue to face tough choices, including the possibility of layoffs. That’s when potential conflicts involving board members in places like Marshall could become even more apparent.

Daniels, the Glendale-River Hills district resident, doesn’t think teachers or union representatives should be allowed on school boards at all — a prohibition that is likely not legally feasible.

For now, defenders of the status quo say it’s an irrefutable fact that no one gets on a board without being elected. Bryan Kennedy, for instance, has been elected twice. And Jeff Ziegler points out that he’s been re-elected since his wife got her job in the district, suggesting that his fellow residents have no problem with it. Assuming most of them even know about it.

There’s reason to wonder.

Ziegler made his comments to Wisconsin Interest at the end of the board’s annual meeting, and the room was nearly empty, perhaps partly because it was the night of the infamous Monday night Packers-Seahawks game. Even before the game had started, though, there were only three or four people present other than district staff and board members, including both Jeff and Mary Jo Ziegler.

Brocker, who ran unsuccessfully against Kennedy, has nothing against teachers or unions. His dad, in fact, was a business rep for the AFL-CIO. Unions, he says, “have their place. But there are times that they overreach.”

And, he suggests, there are times when voters don’t realize the stakes in Wisconsin’s new education landscape and let them overreach. The same folks who lost in Madison — the teachers and the unions and the Democrats — are now making a “conscious effort” to slowly gain control of the schools at the local level, says Brocker.

“The Democrats are good at one thing,” he adds, “the grass roots. They will take their time and work their way up, and that is what they are  doing here.”

Mike Nichols is a freelance writer and a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.