When Brian Wiltgen applied for a teaching position in the Eau Claire school district nearly 20 years ago, he believed it was a “destination district” to work for.
Over the years Wiltgen’s spent teaching in Eau Claire since, the Manz Elementary School teacher experienced the district’s ups and downs, including seven salary freezes.
As the Eau Claire school board has considered making cuts to the retiree benefits he was promised when he was hired in 1999, it feels as if that “destination district” only continues to go downhill, Wiltgen said.
“This has become a district of devastation,” Wiltgen said at the Eau Claire school board meeting Monday night before the school board, despite administration recommendation, unanimously voted not to cap health and dental benefits at the current 2018-19 rates and postponed changes to other post-employment benefits (OPEB) for the time being.
According to information presented at the Dec. 3 board meeting, capping the rates would’ve saved the district about $10.6 million over 30 years, or about $353,982 per year, based on 2017-18 district staffing and retirement data. The cap would’ve impacted about 650 of the district’s 1,400 employees.
Monday night’s decision came after lengthy board debate before a room packed with nearly 100 concerned teachers, many of whom sported red Eau Claire Association of Educators T-shirts and spoke to the board directly during the public input session.
Mark Goings, president of the Eau Claire Association of Educators, told the board that while he understands they’re in a difficult situation considering the budget, hitting teachers and staff with cuts isn’t fair and doesn’t seem like the answer.
“You are being asked to balance the books in a system that’s rigged against us,” Goings said. “Staff is the greatest cost, but staff is also the district’s greatest asset.”
Dan Wilson, a special education teacher in the district, said he and many other fellow teachers feel the district has not been fully transparent with information about the potential caps and the issue of changing current OPEB.
Wilson said it would be irresponsible for the board to vote on the issue Monday night, especially considering all the district’s teachers and staff do for their students and for the district as a whole.
“We have been there for the district,” Wilson said, “but will the district continue to be there for us? If reasonable changes need to be made, then take the time to get all the facts and the data and the information. Then at that point, let’s talk about it.”
District business manager Abby Johnson said during her presentation to the board she disagreed with some teachers’ complaints that the board hasn’t researched OPEB enough or communicated all the information, referring to discussions that have continued over months and years.
The school board in November 2016 established examining OPEB a priority when the district’s unfunded liability sat at about $112 million, Johnson said. Now, as the board considers making this decision, unfunded liabilities currently sit at $125 million.
Since the conversations began, Johnson said, discussions have shifted and the information presented has naturally done the same. Johnson said capping health and dental rates was an option early on in the process, though it was removed from discussions for a while for not producing enough of a savings.
Board President Joe Luginbill said he felt he can’t make a decision regarding OPEB because not only is there little solid data about capping the rates, but the option also was not formally presented to staff at listening sessions.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions, and that’s important to note,” Luginbill said. “I feel that energy needs to be continually spent in an increasing way at looking at third source funding. That’s not a fantasy idea; that’s not a pie in the sky idea.”
Board Vice President Aaron Harder agreed with Luginbill that there seems to be more conversations needed around the district’s dwindling fund balance and where cuts should be made if that’s a necessity.
“The way forward is together,” Harder said. “And that means dialogue.”