Wisconsin teachers sue school district over allegedly illegal contract provisions

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Wisconsin, seemingly a national hothouse for battles over the power of public employee unions, is at it again.

A group of public school teachers has filed a class action lawsuit against a suburban Milwaukee school district because, the teachers say, the district has asserted the authority to cut teachers’ salaries arbitrarily.

The Greenfield School District School Board also allegedly says it can fine teachers up to $2,500 if they fail to sign their contracts in a timely manner.

Lead plaintiff Kimberly Palmer sued in Milwaukee County Court on behalf of a class of 230 teachers, Courthouse News Service reports.

According to Palmer’s complaint, the district’s 2012-2013 contracts teem with forbidden and unenforceable provisions.

Most egregiously, the complaint alleges, the contract permits the district to sack tenured teachers or reduce their compensation for ambiguous reasons. As Courthouse News notes, the contract allegedly allows the district to act:

“if in the sole discretion of the district, the educator fails to meet the expectations referenced in the contract, acts in a manner that is not in the best interests of the district’s students, fails to abide by the terms of the Employee Handbook, fails to carry out the duties and responsibilities of the job description, or if the district decides to reduce the professional staff for financial or other lawful reasons.”

The plaintiffs say this contract clause violates at least two Wisconsin statues, as well as state contract law. Under Wisconsin law, they argue, the school district must establish set wages for teachers, and can only fire teachers for good cause.

The complaint also alleges that the contract provides for fines ranging from $1,000 to $2,500 or outright termination if teachers don’t return signed contracts on time.

“A stigma is attached to being non-renewed by a school district, as it suggests that a teacher’s employment was not continued for performance reasons or misconduct,” the lawsuit alleges, according to Courthouse News.

The teachers seek damages for any lost pay resulting from the contested contract provisions, and a declaration from the court that the contract is not lawful and must be renegotiated.

It is unclear whether the teachers union negotiated — and teachers agreed to — the contract the plaintiffs in this lawsuit now claim is illegal under Wisconsin law.

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Eric Owens