Remember way back in February when Wisconsin held the collective attention of the nation with its unfolding drama surrounding an “anti-union” bill? A bill so terrible, we were told, that Democrat senators had to flee the state? Of course, we at OB&B remember because the issue of public unions has been a concern for many years, so it’s natural now that bill has become law to get an update on its impact so far, and Byron York did just that:
The Kaukauna School District, in the Fox River Valley of Wisconsin near Appleton, has about 4,200 students and about 400 employees. It has struggled in recent times and this year faced a deficit of $400,000. But after the law went into effect, at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, school officials put in place new policies they estimate will turn that $400,000 deficit into a $1.5 million surplus. And it’s all because of the very provisions that union leaders predicted would be disastrous.
In the past, teachers and other staff at Kaukauna were required to pay 10 percent of the cost of their health insurance coverage and none of their pension costs. Now, they’ll pay 12.6 percent of the cost of their coverage (still well below rates in much of the private sector) and also contribute 5.8 percent of salary to their pensions. The changes will save the school board an estimated $1.2 million this year, according to board President Todd Arnoldussen.
Of course, Wisconsin unions had offered to make benefit concessions during the budget fight. Wouldn’t Kaukauna’s money problems have been solved if Walker had just accepted those concessions and not demanded cutbacks in collective bargaining powers?
“The monetary part of it is not the entire issue,” says Arnoldussen, a political independent who won a spot on the board in a nonpartisan election. Indeed, some of the most important improvements in Kaukauna’s outlook are because of the new limits on collective bargaining.
In the past, Kaukauna’s agreement with the teachers union required the school district to purchase health insurance coverage from something called WEA Trust — a company created by the Wisconsin teachers union. “It was in the collective bargaining agreement that we could only negotiate with them,” says Arnoldussen. “Well, you know what happens when you can only negotiate with one vendor.” This year, WEA Trust told Kaukauna that it would face a significant increase in premiums.
Now, the collective bargaining agreement is gone, and the school district is free to shop around for coverage. And all of a sudden, WEA Trust has changed its position. “With these changes, the schools could go out for bids, and lo and behold, WEA Trust said, ‘We can match the lowest bid,'” says Republican state Rep. Jim Steineke, who represents the area and supports the Walker changes. At least for the moment, Kaukauna is staying with WEA Trust, but saving substantial amounts of money.
It just so happens that Governor Walker himself pointed out the impact of WEA Trust on school districts, as OB&B posted last winter:
Currently many school districts participate in WEA trust because WEAC collectively bargains to get as many school districts across the state to participate in this union run health insurance plan as possible. Union leadership benefits from members participating in this plan. If school districts enrolled in the state employee health plan, it would save school districts up to $68 million per year. Beyond that if school districts had the flexibility to look for health insurance coverage outside of WEA trust or the state plan, additional savings would likely be realized.
And so it seems that Governor Walker was telling the truth, and not unfairly targeting government workers. If the residents of the Kaukauna School District think it’s a good thing their district has a $1.5 million surplus they can thank Governor Walker and Republican lawmakers. Better yet, the voters can remember who fought to bring this change and who fled it on election day.