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Thursday, February 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 10.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Confusion reigns on Act 10 decision: Impact of a Dane County judge's ruling is uncertain
Jane Belmore, interim Madison schools superintendent: 'There are still a lot of unanswered questions.'
Jane Belmore, interim Madison schools superintendent: 'There are still a lot of unanswered questions.'

Anyone looking for clarity on the state of Gov. Scott Walker's Act 10 -- which eliminated most collective bargaining rights for most public employees last year -- won't likely find it any time soon.

The law was partially overturned last week by Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas. Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen is asking for a stay on the ruling until appeals can be heard. That alone has left local officials in a state of confusion.

Jane Belmore, interim Madison schools superintendent, says in a statement: "There are still a lot of unanswered questions, and while we deal with that uncertainty, what hasn't changed is that we still need to determine together how to go forward in the best interest of our employees and our district."

John Matthews, executive director of Madison Teachers Inc., has asked the district to immediately begin negotiating a two-year contract that would go into effect after current contracts expire in June 2013.

The Madison school district, at least, has the luxury of some time. Contracts in other districts have already expired, says Barry Forbes, associate executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. And school boards around the state are grappling with how to move ahead on plans for employee handbooks -- documents that would establish guidelines for issues previously spelled out in contracts.

Even if Colas' ruling is upheld, Forbes says, "It's not a return to the days before Act 10." Some elements of the controversial act stand.

One of them is the elimination of "interest arbitration" between teacher unions and school districts. In the past, when the two sides couldn't agree on contracts, they would go to an arbitrator, who would draw one they'd both have to accept.

"That was a difficult process for school boards because we were forced to agree to things we didn't want to," Forbes says. "That is probably the most important thing in Act 10 in terms of returning power to local governments."

Colas also kept intact Act 10's restricting of bargaining to wages. School districts still do not have to negotiate over hours and working conditions unless they want to, says Forbes.

When Act 10 was passed, Walker praised it as giving local governments the "tools" to deal with shrinking state funding. Does Colas' decision now eliminate those tools? Not really, Forbes says.

"We've used those tools," he says. "You can't keep going back to that well again and again, or the private sector is going to look better and better and people won't want to work for school districts."

Although, Colas ruled on a case brought by Madison Teachers Inc. and Public Employees Local 61, a union of Milwaukee city employees, his decision applies to all county, municipal and school employees, says Lester Pines, an attorney representing Madison Teachers Inc. It does not cover state employees.

But Pines says there's likely to be at least one other lawsuit on Act 10, from law enforcement agencies. Walker exempted most fire and police unions, including those representing state troopers. But he did not exempt unions representing UW police, Department of Natural Resource wardens, Capitol police, and special agents of both the state departments of Justice and Revenue.

Pines says "there's absolutely no reason" for the unions to be considered differently. "They're all sworn law enforcement agents."

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