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Racine, Oak Creek teachers fight for higher pay as other districts approve raises among vacancies

Teachers threaten to quit if pay demands aren't met

Kindergartener Malachi Stewart high-fives educational assistant Addison Hawk.
In this photo taken Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, Malachi Stewart, right, high-fives educational assistant Addison Hawk as Ahmed Omar continues with his work in their kindergarten classroom at Campbell Hill Elementary in Renton, Wash. Elaine Thompson/AP Photo

With unprecedented vacancies, teachers have been able to negotiate historic pay increases in school districts across the state, including Milwaukee, Madison and Wauwatosa.

But not all school boards have been receptive.

Teachers in Racine and Oak Creek continue to push for higher pay, and union leaders say many educators may leave their districts if their demands are not met.

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“This is already happening on a scale that I have never seen ,” said Ted Kraig, executive director of Wisconsin Education Association Council’s southeastern region. “We have a large number of districts that have historically high turnover, and it has just gotten worse or worse. We have people looking to transfer districts or just get out of the profession all together. It’s just a really bad situation as far as teachers leaving.”

This week, the Oak Creek Education Association delivered a petition to the school board signed by 395 teachers — approximately 87 percent of the district’s teaching staff — calling for the state government to properly fund Wisconsin’s schools and for the school district to invest in cost-of-living salary increases.

The Oak Creek Franklin School District gave a 2.25 percent increase to the vast majority of teachers this year, the lowest increase in the area, Kraig said.

A survey of Oak Creek teachers found nearly 60 percent said the current salary system makes them more likely to leave the district. The Oak Creek school board accepted the petition, but did not respond.

Kraig said he’s hopeful for a change in coming weeks.

In Racine, teachers are still waiting on a contract. Racine Educators United has asked the district for an 8 percent pay increase, a step in the salary schedule and no cuts to their benefits. Last year teachers received a cost-of-living increase of 4 percent.

The district has not yet begun negotiations with teachers.

Like many districts, the Racine Unified School District Board of Education has said it’s waiting to see what the state will approve for education funding.

In a statement to Wisconsin Public Radio, School Board President Jane Barbian said the board was hopeful the state Legislature would provide additional funding for public education in their new budget to keep staff with a cost-of-living adjustment to pay.

“Unfortunately, it looks like the state is merely putting a band aide on our budget shortfall for the next few years,” Barbian said. “This being said, staying competitive in pay and benefits for our staff with surrounding communities remains a priority for us. The RUSD School Board will do all it can for our hardworking staff and continue to recruit the highest qualified staff for our students.”

This week, the Joint Finance Committee has approved a $325 per pupil increase in 2023-24 and $325 per pupil additional increase in 2024-25 in revenue limits. The revenue limit ceiling has been increased from $10,000 to $11,000.

Public school advocates have said they feel shortchanged, because private voucher schools are seeing the largest funding increase since the choice school program began.

Cruz said she fears Racine teachers will begin leaving the district to work in Milwaukee or Wauwatosa, which have negotiated 8 percent and 12 percent pay increases, respectively.

Racine Unified has about 70 teacher vacancies, Cruz said.

“What is happening right now is unsustainable, and it is not what’s best for our kids,” Cruz said. “We as educators know that what is best for our kids is to have stable classrooms. Right now, that is not an expectation that is being met. They should not have a revolving door of adults standing in front of them.

Milwaukee Public School and Madison Public School teachers negotiated 8 percent pay increases this year. The latest data shows Milwaukee has about 340 teacher vacancies, while Madison schools have about 140 teacher openings.

Amy Mizialko, president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, said districts that invest in staff salaries are becoming more competitive and are likely to fill vacancies by luring teachers from districts that don’t make similar moves to increase their wage scales.

“There’s no way to recruit ourselves out of a severe staffing shortage,” Mizialko said. “Racine is an easy commute to Milwaukee. And that commute is made even easier when they know the Milwaukee Public School Board and administration has wisely made moves to retain every worker they have.”