Wisconsin school districts are warning teachers, each one on the payroll in some cases, that their contracts might not be renewed as Gov. Scott Walker's plan to cut nearly all public employees' collective bargaining rights remains in limbo.
The proposal took a concrete step forward Friday when Republicans in the state Assembly abruptly approved the bill and sent it to the Senate after three straight days of punishing debate and amid confusion among Democrats. But with all 14 Democratic state senators still out of state, another stalemate awaits the measure that Walker insists will help solve budget deficits and avoid mass layoffs.
The legislative gridlock prompted the Wisconsin Association of Schools Boards to warn districts that they have until Monday to warn teachers of possible nonrenewal of contracts. That's because if Walker's bill becomes law, it would void current teacher collective bargaining agreements that lay out protocol and deadlines for conducting layoffs.
New London district administrator Bill Fitzpatrick said he had been authorized by his school board to issue nonrenewal notices to all 180 district teachers, but was negotiating a deadline extension with local teachers union officials to avoid sending the notices en masse.
"It's like going to the doctor and being told you might have some kind of disease but that's the only thing they can tell you," Fitzpatrick said Friday. "This fear of the unknown, of not knowing the future of your livelihood - that's what the people in this building are worried about right now."
Despite the uncertainty created by the absence of the Senate Democrats, who fled more than a week ago to block a vote on Walker's bill, Marshfield kindergarten teacher Jane Cooper said she blames Republicans.
"They are trying to bust our union," Cooper said. "That is huge."
The flashpoint in Walker's proposal is language that would require public workers to contribute more to their pensions and health insurance and strip them of their right to collectively bargain benefits and work conditions.
It contains a number of provisions he says are designed to fill the state's $137 million deficit and lay the groundwork for fixing a projected $3.6 billion shortfall in the upcoming 2011-13 budget.
Democrats and unions see the measure as an attack on workers' rights and an attempt to cripple union support for Democrats. Union leaders say they would make pension and health care concessions if they can keep their bargaining rights, but Walker has refused to compromise.
None of the nearly 8,000 members of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association had received notices as of Friday, although president Mike Langyel said they expected some by early next week. Third-grade teacher Alaura Cook said teachers remained united against Walker's bill, despite his insistence it would save at least 1,500 jobs.
"It's never good when anybody loses their job," Cook said. "But we know in the long run if we keep our rights they could somehow find the money to hire those teachers back."
Among those who already have received nonrenewal notices is the wife of Senate Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, a key Walker ally. Lisa Fitzgerald is a counselor in the Hustiford school district, where all 34 teachers have gotten the warnings.
"The layoffs are real," Scott Fitzgerald said Friday. "I don't know if the Democrats understand that. This isn't some game of chicken."
Several Democratic senators said the layoffs threat wasn't enough to bring them back to Madison. Sen. Chris Larson stopped short of calling it a bluff, but said he believes Walker hoped to pit middle-class workers against one another.
"It's quite despicable that he would use layoffs as a political tool," Larson said. "A lot of his tactics are veiled threats. We can see right through them."
Milwaukee elementary school teacher Kelly McMahon agreed.
"There's no reason for him to take my rights away," she said of Walker. "There's no reason for layoffs. He's being more stubborn than some of my kindergartners are."
Walker wasn't backing off Friday. He traveled to Kenosha, Green Bay and Rhinelander - three cities home to Democratic senators - to encourage the missing lawmakers to return and to stress that Republicans have no intention of backing off the main tenets of his bill.
Walker said he didn't want to see layoffs, but insisted that if the bill is not passed by the end of next week, his administration would have to start preparing layoff notices for as many as 1,500 state employees.
Tens of thousands of people have jammed the Capitol since last week to protest the measure, pounding on drums and chanting so loudly that police providing security have resorted to ear plugs. Hundreds took to sleeping in the building overnight, dragging in air mattresses and blankets.
Lawmakers have spent multiple nights as well.
The Assembly debate had reached 60 hours, with 15 Democrats still waiting to speak, when the vote started around 1 a.m. Friday. The voting roll opened and closed within seconds. Democrats looked around, bewildered. Only 13 of the 38 Democratic members managed to vote in time.
Republicans marched out of the chamber silently. Democrats rushed at them, pumping their fists and shouting "Shame!" and "Cowards!"
Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca called the tactic an underhanded trick later Friday. He said his staff was exploring whether the vote was legal but that it was too early to say whether Democrats could challenge the result.
Associated Press writers Scott Bauer and Todd Richmond in Madison and Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)