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Joining union fight — on their own time

Lake Geneva Schools business as usual during battle in Madison

CITY UNION REPS WEIGH IN - Sabrina and Neil Waswo are married and work for the city of Lake Geneva. But, they have more than that in common. They also are the union representatives for their respective departments in the city and they both share similar opinions on what's happening in Madison with Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill. Sabrina, who is the union representative for the Lake Geneva Office Employees Association, which are the clerical workers at City Hall, represents a total of six people, including herself. "The big thing is there are a lot of questions and no answers," Sabrina said. "I don't support the bill, but who knows where it is going to go and how it will affect us all." She said questions include when it would start and whether all contracts are included in the stipulations. Neil, the leader of the city's street department union, which includes 10 members, said shop talk before and after work and even during lunch breaks has revolved around the budget repair bill Walker has proposed. But, Neil said, there was never any thought to leave and head to Madison during a work day. "The citizens of Lake Geneva don't need to suffer, especially with the snow coming," Neil said Monday. "Plus, in our contract it says we can't strike or slow work." Sabrina said she doesn't think anyone in her union has an problem paying more with regard to their health insurance premiums and pensions. Walker's bill would increase public employee contributions to health insurance and pensions. It would also eliminate collective bargaining for everything but wages. Sabrina said the collective bargaining issue is the biggest concern with the bill. Neil called the bill a "bum deal." He said the employees in the street department are upset about the possible changes. "Everything we do for salary and benefits is done through bargaining," Neil said. He said that includes vacation time, sick time, hours and other stipulations attained through bargaining. He said the situation is frustrating because local street workers have taken lower wages in order to receive the benefits they desired. Neil hopes there can be a compromise at the state level. The Waswos said they have not attended any rallies in Madison, but both believe even the small unions are being looked at in a negative way. Sabrina said she was saddened to hear some people say that public employees "don't live in the real world." She said she and her fellow employees understand the status of the city and they all pay taxes as well. Neil said he feels the small local unions are "being thrown under the bus" as they are compared to the large unions. Both said they have good relationships with the city and that both sides have always tried to "be fair" during contract negotiations. "We all enjoy working for the city," Neil said about himself and his fellow street workers. Neil also said the Lake Geneva Street Department employees are among the lowest paid in Walworth County. City Administrator Dennis Jordan said he also has a wait-and-see attitude on the situation. But, he said that doesn't mean he's not talking about it. "There's been e-mails flying back and forth between administrators, I've been watching the news and I have friends from all over calling and asking me what's going on in Wisconsin," Jordan said.
February 23, 2011 | 09:07 AM
While school districts in the Madison and Milwaukee areas closed for days last week because teachers called out sick to protest at the State Capitol, work in the Lake Geneva Schools has continued pretty much as normal.

Thousands of teachers and other public employees from around the state have descended on Madison to voice their displeasure of Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposal that would require many public employees to contribute a higher percentage of their pay to their pensions and health insurance and basically put an end to collective bargaining.

But, according to local school officials, Lake Geneva teachers have not called out sick in favor of carrying signs and chanting in the Capitol rotunda.

On Friday, Lake Geneva School Superintendent Jim Gottinger reported the protests had very little effect on the district. He said although Friday was a teacher inservice, teacher attendance at the school was typical of an inservice.

Gottinger said he was pleased and proud of the teachers in the Lake Geneva Schools for their commitment to the students and the district.

Badger Professional Educator's Association President Dawn Nelson, a language teacher at the school, said some teachers have traveled to Madison, mainly last Wednesday after school and then again this weekend.

On Monday, she said there were plans for taking a bus back to Madison both Tuesday and Wednesday after school.

"We are definitely honoring our contract and continuing to serve the school," Nelson said.

She said those teachers who went this past weekend traveled to the Capitol on their own. Nelson said it is important to go to Madison to support the efforts against the budget bill and back public employees. She called it a "civil liberties and a human rights issue" and the effort is to protect and guard the current and future collective bargaining rights of public employees in the state.

Nelson, who attended the biggest rally so far on Saturday, said it was like a "political Woodstock."

"It was peaceful," she said. "Everyone is so respectful of each other. Standing beside firefighters and electrical workers, all working together."

Nelson said she agreed with her fellow protesters who have suggested there's little problem with teachers funding more of their health insurance and pensions. She said the "big issue" is Walker's desire to end collective bargaining for everything but wages.

Nelson said she believes if this idea is approved, it will have a "huge impact."

"This will have a huge impact on the conditions in schools throughout the state and in other states across the country," she said.

But, despite the contentious issue, Nelson said she didn't have to make a request for teachers stay in class.

"We just did not have members who wanted to walk out of the classrooms," she said. "We have a good relationship with the administration and the community and we want to continue to meet the needs of the students."

Nelson said Badger teachers are "lucky" to have such a great relationship with the administration, board and community. She said not all districts are like that.

Walker, who has garnered national attention during the past two weeks, has said his effort is to balance the state's budget, which currently has a $3.6 billion deficit. However, Walker's idea does not include some emergency personnel such as firefighters and police officers.

Gottinger said the district is awaiting Walker's budget to discuss further the implications of the current budget repair bill. Gottinger said he expects Walker to remove about $900 million from state aid to school districts.

He said the increases in teacher contributions to their health insurance and pensions along with the elimination of collective bargaining for everything but wages, appears to be intended to "give the school boards the meat to offset that."

Nelson said she understands the budget problems looming in the state. She said she would like to see civil compromise that results in a fair and equitable solution for everyone.

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