Monday, February 21, 2011

Wisconsin labor dispute. Good luck kicking that hornet nest.

To help curb the budget deficit in Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker is trying to bust the education employee unions by stripping them of collective bargaining powers and ability to fund political campaigns.  Strong and bold measures are needed fast to avoid impending budget disasters in states and localities, not just in Wisconsin but across the Nation.  However, I disagree with Walker's kick the hornets nest, union-busting approach.  The shitstorm he created will do more damage than good and end up costing the taxpayers more than if he had a reasonable plan going into budget negotiations.

Resources are always limited.  The strategy for any enterprise should be to focus on eliminating waste.  Waste in labor, waste in energy, waste in supplies, waste in processes, waste in every level of the operation.   So if I was a Governor and I needed to cut costs in the funding of public education, instead of  boldly cheesing off every single union member into a frenzy of rage and activism, I would propose a few ideas for reducing waste and then challenge others to justify why the waste is preferable.  Not to say I wouldn't upset lots of people with these proposals, but I think the bulk of the people will go along.  That's what leaders do.  Find publicly acceptable and workable solutions.

1) Longer school days but more days off.  Transportation and building maintenance costs are a very large part of the budget.  If schools could implement a 4 day school week with longer school days, there would be huge potential for savings.  As fuel costs rise this will get even more meaningful.

2) Introduce statewide medical and retirement plans in which any district could opt to participate instead of having to negotiate and administer their own plans.  There would still be local negotiations for salaries and extended benefits, but a statewide baseline plan could save costs by increasing the pool of employees.  

3) Publicly promote outsourcing of non-education-related services and be ready to take on the opposition head first.  Schools need to focus resources on education which means they need to minimize resources on non-educational costs such as building maintenance, busing and cleaning.  There is enormous waste in this part of the district budgets and the reason goes to the manner in which the school districts are managed.  Locally elected school boards negotiate contracts and it is far more likely that the non-degreed personnel in the district, namely the janitors, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers live and vote in the district. Teachers are more likely to live outside the district and have less influence in the local elections.  Any school board member who tries to cut into the non-educational part of the school budget won't last long.  Essentially, the non-educational employee unions hold the districts hostage, and the hell with the students, teachers, and  classrooms.  If the typical taxpayer knew how little work is asked from a school district janitor in a normal day they would be shocked.  If the Governor wants to take on any union, these are the ones.  Start by claiming loyalty to the teachers, the ones who actually do the educating, and pointing out the waste in building maintenance and busing costs compared to privatized services to all the taxpayers.  Offer to direct a percentage of the cost savings back into the classroom facilities.  Divide and conquer, just like Sun Tzu said.  If required, put privatization proposals directly for public vote.  This is key for success.   

4. Reduce administrative costs by combining smaller school districts.  Neighborhood schools can retain their names and teams, but it would make sense if at a higher level there was a combining of the school districts to reduce administration costs.

5.  Open up the role of school principal to those with business backgrounds, not just promoted educators.  Schools are very similar to very large business enterprises.  Why in the world do we trust the management of these multi-million dollar enterprises to people whose background is in education?  I'm sure there are a lot of principals who do an outstanding job and keep a close eye on operational costs, effectively manage human resources and focus on long and short term goals and customer satisfaction  but that particular outcome would be more likely if principals had the aptitude, training,and experience managing real-life business operations.  This is another opportunity for waste reduction.  Competent effective management.  Oh and get ready for a union fight there too.  School principals typically belong to their own union!

Well there are a few ideas that I think would accomplish more than Scott Walker's attempt to eliminate public employee unions will.

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