The Student News Site of Shorewood High School

Shorewood Ripples

The Student News Site of Shorewood High School

Shorewood Ripples

The Student News Site of Shorewood High School

Shorewood Ripples

Survey reveals staff dissatisfaction

courtesy Maya Schmaling

A new survey run by the 8-person negotiations team for the Shorewood Educators Association (SEA) and Shorewood Support Staff Association (SSSA) reported, among other findings, that as a result of financial insecurity, 43.8% of teachers and support staff who replied to the survey have delayed their plans for higher education, 57.1% have considered pursuing employment in another district, and a greater amount, 65.7%, have considered leaving the teaching profession entirely.

The survey was conducted from October 12 to October 15, 2023. Of the 105 staff members who replied, 95 were teachers and 10 were support staff. A link to the survey is available on the Shorewood Ripples webpage.

51.5% of teachers and support staff who replied to the survey reported that they had taken on one or more additional jobs to offset financial hardship. 13.3% reported being food insecure within the last six months. 2.9% reported having to move in the last six months due to financial stress.

92.5% of teachers and support staff reported feeling increased financial stress as a result of inflation. 72.4% reported feeling financial stress as a result of the district’s changes in staff insurance in 2023. Other causes of financial stress included increased taxes from the 2023 referendum (25.7%), credit card debt (36.2%), student loans (40.0%), and increased costs of childcare (18.1%).

After Act 10 passed in 2011, teachers’ unions were restricted from bargaining for wage increases above the consumer price index, or inflation level, and their health care and fringe benefits were limited. Despite this, until 2021, the district continued to fund the traditional steps and lanes program, allowing teachers to increase their base wage by moving up ‘steps’, or gathering more experience, and across ‘lanes’ by obtaining higher levels of education, starting with a bachelor’s degree and ending with a master’s degree plus 45 credits of continued education. Since Act 10 passed, the Shorewood Educators Association (SEA) has been unable to negotiate this program, which was funded at the district’s discretion, past the time when many other school districts phased out their steps and lanes programs. 

After 2021, the district changed their pay structure: instead of being funded discretionarily by the district, the salary increases for teachers moving across steps and over lanes were subsidized by lower relative wage adjustments for teachers at the end of their lanes, who had maxed out their experience in the district. 51% of teachers in Shorewood are at the end of their lanes, meaning that a salary increase in the steps and lanes program would require seeking higher education. Since steps and lanes is no longer funded discretionarily, teachers must renegotiate for its existence at the end of every one-year contract. This means that teachers no longer have a consistent year-to-year understanding of how their wages will change if they move across lanes by trying to seek higher education.

The final SEA/SSSA negotiations process concluded in early November, with two one-year agreements. In the 20232024 school year, custodial staff and administrators will receive a 5.6% base wage increase, and teachers and support staff will receive a 4% base wage increase, plus 1.6% allocated toward steps and lanes. In the 20242025 school year, teachers and support staff will receive a 3% base wage increase, plus 1.6% allocated towards steps and lanes. The 1.6% for steps and lanes cost the school 183,000 dollars for the combined teaching staff. The base cost, without income tax or retirement, of staff salaries this year was approximately 640,500 dollars.

The initial SEA/SSSA request was an 8% base wage increase, the same as the consumer price index increase last year, as well as 1.6% to fund the steps and lanes salary schedule. The base cost of this for staff would be approximately 1,098,000 dollars. The initial school board request was a 2.35% base wage increase, plus 1.65% to fund steps and lanes, for a base cost of approximately 451,781 dollars. These dollar estimates do not include the proportionally increasing costs of salary taxes (8%) and retirement (7.65%) that the district would also have to pay, or the proportional costs of increased wages for all employee groups. Had the initial school board request passed, the survey reported, 24.8% of staff who replied may have needed to change their living situation, 41% may have needed to leave the teaching profession at the end of the current school year, and 58.1% may have needed to look for employment outside of the district at the end of the current school year. 

Jason Lowery, Spanish teacher and member of the SEA and SSSA’s negotiations team, is in his ninth year teaching at the high school.

“Over the past three years, including this year, the district has started to use our CPI (consumer price index) money, or our salary adjustments for inflation, to fund steps and lanes,” Lowery said. “In other words, the district is no longer funding it. The teachers themselves are funding steps and lanes. Last year’s CPI was 4.7%. The district advertised it as, ‘everybody got a 4.7% raise.’ Last year, people like myself that were at the bottom of their respective [lanes] got a 3.16% salary adjustment. Basically half of the staff, with every year they stay in Shorewood, will be making less money in real dollars for the rest of their career.”

Heather Heaviland, Director of Business Services, stated that the steps and lanes salary schedule is within the money that the district allots to teacher salaries, and there must be a proportional amount allocated to both custodians and administrators.

“There’s always going to be a pot of money allocated by the board– you’re deciding how you spend it,” Heaviland said. “There’s not special steps and lanes money minted, there’s a budget and we allocate it.”

Shorewood passed a community-funded operating referendum of 5.5 million dollars each year from the 2324 school year to the 2728 school year, for a total of 27.5 million dollars. The referendum was proposed because of a budget deficit of 25 million at the end of those five years. The list of assumptions made to predict this deficit was presented in the December 13, 2022 board meeting.

A line-item detailing of the operating referendum money was not made available due to budgeting uncertainty. This year, the district increased expenditures. 3.7 million dollars went to Fund 10, the school’s general, or cash balance, fund. 875,000 dollars were allocated to Fund 46, a new capital maintenance fund created after the referendum’s passing. 90,000 dollars went to student mental health services, and 65,000 dollars went to a Sources of Strength and SCERTS SEL (wellness) program. 25,000 dollars went to an equity leadership program; 21,000 went to staff leadership development programs; 600,000 went to future facility needs. 50,000 went to replacing the internal hardware of the SHS monument sign.

Heaviland stated that maintenance is an especially important allocation area for referendum money. 

“The district has 500,000 square feet of real estate that’s mostly over a hundred years old,” Heaviland said. “We would be irresponsible if we weren’t planning for that and planning for the maintenance. A significant number of our roofs need to be replaced over the next five years. We have technology infrastructure that’s going to need to be replaced. We have heating and cooling systems that’ll need to be repaired and maintained.” 

Lowery, who became a representative of the negotiations team three years ago, has been following the budget closely since 2018. The teachers’ union overwhelmingly supported the referendum, but many of its members believed that more money would be allocated towards teacher salaries and steps and lanes.

“There wasn’t anything anywhere that said [the district would] put 3.6 million dollars into the fund balance, or that [they were] going to grow our fund balance to 25% in the first year of the operating referendum,” Lowery said. “That was not made public knowledge. One could speculate that if the details were made public, then perhaps it wouldn’t have been as resoundingly supported…I’ve heard people in the community say they feel hoodwinked, like they had the wool pulled over their eyes, like it was the old bait and switch.”

Lowery believes that the referendum money is not being distributed in a way that would be most beneficial for staff.

“The district could choose to build their fund balance and simultaneously take care of their people in the way that we have advocated for support staff and teachers for years… it’s a choice that the district makes. They could fully fund steps and lanes. They could give everybody a salary adjustment that helps them to stay afloat with inflation and save for the future,” Lowery said.

Heaviland stated that in the operating referendum materials shared with the public, the District included an assumption of 3% annual increases in salaries. The increase in salaries to 5.6% resulted in a projected increase above what was already projected of approximately $485,000 in salary and fringe benefits this year, and next year, the district expects to spend $815,000 more than initially projected. According to Heaviland, if all other expenses remained static, the compounding cost of the 9.6% increase that the teachers requested would have put the district in a deficit within the next three to four years.

To vote for the operating referendum, constituents checked a box on a question that was worded: “Shall the School District of Shorewood, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, be authorized to exceed the revenue limit specific in Section 121.91, Wisconsin Statutes, by $5.5M per year beginning with the 2023-2024 school year and ending with the 2027-2028 school year, for non-recurring purposes consisting of operational and maintenance expenses, including salaries, benefits, and instructional and extra-curricular programming?”

Amy Miller, a fifth and sixth grade teacher at Lake Bluff and president of the SEA, sat on the referendum committee last year but was also not aware of the fund allotment. She expressed a desire for greater financial transparency in the district.

“Part of it is how the state is choosing to not fund public education,” Miller said. “It’s not all on the district, but a district that goes to the community and says, we’re going to invest in salaries, benefits, programming and extracurriculars…I don’t know why we’ve made this switch to no longer documenting and sharing where the money is being spent. That is a decision of leadership. And if the school board says that they’re good with what the district provides, then there’s very little that teachers or community members can do to change that.”

Jennifer McIntosh, physician and mother of a third and sixth grader at Lake Bluff, mentioned that the district sometimes did not reply to emails or address all submitted public comments at board meetings. She also wished that the district had more clearly stated where the money would go.

“I voted for the operating referendum,” McIntosh said. “My husband did not. He said that he thinks that because of the school’s lack of transparency, he didn’t think they deserved any more money from taxpayers. I, on the other hand, worried about what would happen to teacher pay and teacher retention if we didn’t have the operating referendum. A decent sized fund balance is thought to be important for the health of a district, but I don’t think that most of Shorewood voters voted for an operating referendum to pad a fund balance. I suspect that they voted for an operating referendum to ensure that there would be ongoing quality education [in the district].”

“We’re spending the operating referendum funds on exactly what we said we were spending the operating referendum funds on: continuing to operate and maintain,” Heaviland said. “So our operating referendum wasn’t…a capital referendum, [for the purpose of] building something. It wasn’t like ‘we’re adding a bunch of new programs, we’re opening a new school’. It’s like ‘we’re going to continue offering a high quality education to students.’”

Sam Harshner, a professor of political science at Marquette University, has been a community member for 11 years. Harshner has 15 years of experience in public service, most of it in budgeting. He ran for Shorewood’s Village Board of Trustees last year, and knocked on doors to garner support for the referendum’s passing.

“Despite that overwhelming support, [people] expressed some concern about where the money was being spent and about the specifics,” Harshner said. “And they were wondering why it was necessary to do another referendum – this is an operating referendum in the wake of a capital referendum in recent years – and why we had to do it again in such short order.”

Laurie Burgos, Superintendent, stated that the district should maintain transparency with the community.

“We’re positioned because of that [operating] referendum to be okay for the next five years where other districts might be struggling…. We need to make sure that we’re telling the community how we’re spending the money, the additional funds that they are providing us through their tax dollars,” Burgos said. When you’re spending other people’s money, you have to be really, really careful about the decisions that you make.”

Emily Berry, President of the School Board and mother of two Shorewood students, said that the district struggled with increased costs. 

“The district pays bills like everybody,” Berry said. “So our light bill, our labor costs, transportation costs, gas, even the paper that we use, that all costs about 8% more. So suddenly our bills are more…what we can afford is what we can afford.” 

“Last year we saw an unprecedented number of people leaving the teaching profession in the state of Wisconsin,” Harshner said. “I think traditionally in Shorewood, we have been able to manage and continue to have a superior education system, primarily because we have focused our resources on maintaining high levels of pay for the highly skilled professionals that we have as teachers in the Shorewood School District. I deeply fear that we’re going to tip over the threshold and start to lose people at such a scale that we’re not going to be able to replace them with the same level of experience and talent that we have today.”

Harshner also spoke about the decision to allocate 3.7 million dollars toward the general fund balance.

“Usually the justification for putting money into a cash balance is to fund rainy day funds – to make sure that you can, in a moment of crisis, fully fund operations. I think it’s important that the community understand that this is a potential crisis and that this is the time to start using some of that cash balance.”

The district has a five-year plan, beginning this year, to raise the general fund balance to 25% from 10% of the total budget. Prior to the increase in the general fund this year, Shorewood had one of the lowest dollar amount general funds among schools in the North Shore. According to Heaviland, 10% is a floor for the general fund, and board policy requires a special vote to go underneath that percentage. Auditors suggested that the district maintain a fund balance of 25% to 35% of their total budget. Additionally, Heaviland stated that because the district receives most of their revenue in the winter, they have to borrow money each year to pay their expenses in the fall. According to Berry, the interest on these loans usually cost the district around $30,000. Heaviland stated that this year, the cost of the interest will be at least twice that due to inflation. Adding money to the general fund for later use reduces the likelihood that the school will have to borrow money partway through the year, and the expenses from paying interest. 

At the end of this fiscal year, the general fund will comprise 26.4% of the budget. Berry said that the balance will decrease over time because the district will pull from it as it expects their operating costs to exceed revenue in the upcoming years.

“[Before the referendum] we were projecting our fund balance to go down over the next five years, to be negative, so that we would’ve had to borrow money, essentially, to pay our bills,” Berry said. “We would’ve been constantly running behind our revenue. Instead, now, we’re going to have this year relatively much more revenue than expenses, but we know our expenses will actually go up over the next few years. [The capital maintenance fund] is more like a legit savings account. It’s money that we’re setting aside for anticipated big spending, maintenance things like new roofs, new HVAC.”

The district unilaterally increased all staff groups’ salaries by the same amount, and will continue to do so in following years, due to a policy of equity. However, the 51% of teachers at the bottom of their lanes received a 4% increase – the marginal difference was used to cover the increased base wages of teachers moving across steps or over lanes. 

Berry stated that the policy maintained fairness between staff groups.

“That’s a commitment the board made a couple years ago just because we feel like that’s equitable,” Berry said. “Custodians [and administrators] need to get the same raise that teachers get. They’re also helping run the school.”

According to Lowery, the wage increase distribution is not consistent with the district’s value of equity due to the exclusion of senior teachers from the full 5.6% increase.

“The district has chosen to define equity in what most of us would consider equality,” Lowery said.

Besides that, Lowery said, teachers entering the district often accept a lower pay than their true past years of experience would correlate with, based on individual arrangements worked out with the district. 

“I might have had 10 years of prior experience, but when I start, the district might place me at step four… it doesn’t seem like there is a pattern that is known to where somebody is placed on the salary schedule,” Lowery said.

According to Heaviland, the district is not contractually obligated to honor the ‘steps’ side of the teacher salary schedule, only the ‘lanes’ corresponding to education level.

At the October 24 board meeting this year, Heaviland stated that teachers in Shorewood already have salaries in the 100th percentile compared to the surrounding CESA #1 region, a North Shore region comprising 45 public school districts. This data is sourced from the District’s private education tool Frontline, and is not reflected in the Public Teacher Salary Report on the Department of Public Instruction’s website. The public report filters data based on teachers who have full-time equivalency whereas Frontline includes all salaries, regardless of full-time equivalency.

Lowery said that Shorewood’s starting teacher pay is sixth compared to surrounding districts. He pointed to higher levels of experience and education as reasons for the teachers’ comparatively high salaries. 

“When you have experienced teachers that are highly educated in a community that values compensating their teachers, well, you’re going to wind up with an average of that data point being in the top 1% of our CESA region,” Lowery said. “People that are either leaving the district or leaving the profession are usually people that are less experienced and don’t see a financial path forward.”

Berry stated that the teacher salaries in relation to other districts help establish the competitive rate of salaries, but did not otherwise factor into the decision to give teachers the salary adjustment that they received.

“I’m happy to have us have the best paid teachers [but] I’m not under the illusion that teachers are either in their profession to get wealthy or sitting on a lot of wealth,” Berry said.

Berry stated that in response to the survey, the district will look at a few options, including hiring a human resources administrator.

“There’s a lot of other things that I think we can do to make sure that folks feel valued in their work… one of the things that we’re exploring is having human resources support,” Berry said. “Somebody who is specially trained in handling conflict, in handling employee relations, in handling harassment complaints, is incredibly valuable. The other huge role that that person plays is hiring and managing employee satisfaction and trying to do things like assess how all employees are feeling and how we can help them be happier in their positions.”

According to Berry, the district is also considering conducting a compensation study. 

“You can look at your current system and have an expert come and say, ‘here’s where your compensation system isn’t working well.’ Maybe it’s not working well for people at the very top of the steps and lanes. That would have to be done in really tight collaboration with the union because the salary schedule is theirs, but of course we handle the health benefits. What I hope is that [the two-year agreement] gives Dr. Burgos and the teacher’s unions time to work on things that are not about wages.”

Miller stated that financial investment in teachers would be a more beneficial solution.

“When you look at our starting salary of 48,395 dollars, an HR person is not going to change that,” Miller said. 

Harshner stated that the district could have chosen to prioritize teacher salaries. 

“Budgets are about constraints,” Harshner said. “Budgets are always about how much money you have and what you’re constrained to do. Budgets are also about priorities. Meaning, what do we think is most important to the success of whatever enterprise we’re engaged in? In education, it’s not even close… it’s not the quality of the buildings that makes your experience good, right? It’s the quality of the people who teach you. Fully funding salaries and trying to keep up with CPI and fully funding steps and lanes – those should be our priorities.”

SEA/SSSA Survey Results can be accessed below:

SEA/SSSA Survey Results (Data points only) Link