This spring, Milwaukee Public School leaders agreed to reinstate employee salary schedules, which provide workers with predictable raises based on experience and education level.
It’s a compensation system that MPS eliminated after Act 10 deprived unions of most bargaining powers. Now, the district is reversing course with the goal of stabilizing its workforce.
The salary schedules are being implemented in three phases, and many details are still up in the air. But MPS’s lowest paid employees — like paraprofessionals, safety assistants and cafeteria workers — are already seeing the benefits.
Betty Benson, a food service assistant at Golda Meir middle and high school, is one of them.
"This is a change that we’ve been wanting and hoping for," Benson says. "I believe this is a fresh start, I believe they picking it up a little bit."
Benson has worked in MPS kitchens for 17 years. On a recent morning, she was preparing orange chicken for between 500 and 700 students.
"Gonna make many messes!" Benson laughed as she mixed orange sauce into the chicken.
Benson says her last raise was in the neighborhood of 40 cents. With the salary schedule, she’s getting a more than $3 an hour pay increase — from $14.05 to $17.44 an hour. Her close to 20 years with the district put her at one of the top rungs of the new pay scale — hence the big jump.
The extra money, she says, will go towards bills and maybe setting some aside for the future.
"You don’t want to just average out," Benson says. "You want to be able to save, because right now you don’t really got no savings because all the bills taking it."
Another longtime cafeteria worker, Sonji Brice, has mixed feelings. "It’s the beginning of a start," Brice says. But she thinks the district could do more to make employees like her feel valued.
Brice is part-time food service assistant at Rufus King High School who also works part-time as a home health aide. She’s receiving an about $4 raise, bringing her hourly income to $16.94.
"[The raise] is more than I had, and I’m grateful for that," Brice says. "But I still have to keep my other part-time job. It’s not gonna change my life."
Benson and Brice are two of the about 3,300 MPS workers who have already been brought on to the salary schedules. The biggest employee group — teachers — haven’t yet. But Milwaukee Teachers Education Association president Amy Mizialko says the promise of better compensation is boosting morale.
"I think it’s clear that people are seeing and feeling hope they haven’t had since Act 10," Mizialko says.
The union was the driving force behind the new salary schedules. Members testified for hours at school board budget hearings. They had a receptive audience in a new, union-friendly board and superintendent.
"Re-establishing salary schedules for all workers in the district is integral to ensure we have an adult in every classroom waiting for children in the morning," Mizialko says.
In public testimony, teachers and other workers spoke of an exodus of MPS employees leaving for better-paying jobs in other districts.
MPS Board President Larry Miller says the district needed to do something to stay competitive.
"If you look at the number of teachers and staff that have left for suburbs or other places, it’s significant," Miller said. "We want to keep the people who are dedicated to Milwaukee’s children — we want to keep them in Milwaukee. But if they can’t pay their bills, that won’t happen."
There are questions about how MPS will pay for the additional salary costs.
The $4.3 million first phase is funded with short-term maneuvers like drawing money from the district’s savings and redirecting dollars that are not getting spent on vacant positions. Anne Chapman with the Wisconsin Policy Forum has studied MPS’s financial outlook, which is precarious.
"On the one hand, we absolutely sympathize with the district’s need to address its teacher attraction and retention challenges with increases in salaries and benefits," Chapman says.
But she notes that even though state funding is increasing this year under Gov. Evers, future revenue is unpredictable and depends on enrollment.
"The question is kind of a long-term one," Chapman said. "How are they going to sustain this going forward?"
Another question is how much the salary schedules will cost when it comes to the more expensive employees, like teachers and principals. The school board is set to revisit that question when it makes budget adjustments in October.
MPS’s current leaders support taking this step despite fiscal uncertainty. But in future budget cycles, the school board has the power to get rid of the salary schedules as easily as it resurrected them.
In the short term though, employees like cafeteria workers Brice and Benson are seeing bigger raises than they have in a long time.
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