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Labor War Flares Up in Milwaukee

MILWAUKEE (CN) - Public school teachers filed a class action against a public school district that claims it can cut their pay at will and fine them up to $2,500 if they don't sign their contracts on time.

Lead plaintiff Kimberly Palmer sued the Greenfield School District School Board on behalf of a class of 230 teachers, in Milwaukee County Court. Greenfield is in the southwest Milwaukee metropolitan area.

Palmer claims the district's 2012-2013 contracts are full of illegal and unenforceable provisions: allowing the district to fire or reduce the pay and benefits of tenured teachers for vague and undefined reasons, and to fine them $1,000 to $2,500 if they don't sign their contract by the time the district wants it, or seek release from their contract.

Wisconsin has been Ground Zero in a nationwide fight over rights of public employee unions ever since Gov. Scott Walker pushed his so-called "Budget Reform Act" through the Legislature in March 2011.

The teachers claim:

that the 2012-13 contracts illegally allow the district to "make salary adjustments 'due to disciplinary action and/or changes in full-time equivalency warranted by the district,'" in violation of Wis. Stat. § 118.21;

that the contracts illegally allow the district to cut salary and benefits "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," in violation of Wis. Stat. § 118.21, § 118.21, and state contract law;

that the contracts illegally set up "a liquidated damages schedule that begins assessing damages on June 1," with fines beginning at $1,000, escalating to 2,500, for failing to sign contracts by June 15, or seeking release from contract; this "unlawfully assesses damages to teachers seeking release from their contracts prior to the statutory date for acceptance."

The contracts state "that failure to return a signed contract ... would result in non-renewal of the teacher's contract," the teachers say: "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."

Counsel for the Greenfield Education Association sent a letter to the school board president, objecting to the contracts' provisions, but never received a response.

The class cites violation of Wisconsin Statute 118.21, under which the school district must fix teachers' wages, violation of Wisconsin Statute 118.22, under which the school district must set the contract acceptance date at June 15, and violation of Wisconsin Statute 118.23, under which it can terminate permanent only employees for good cause.

The class is represented by Kurt Kobelt and Rebecca Ferber Osborn of the Wisconsin Education Association Council.

They seek a declaration that the contracts are illegal and unenforceable and that new lawful contracts for the 2012-2013 school year must be entered into.

They also seek damages for all loss of pay and/or benefits resulting from the Greenfield School District's enforcement of the illegal provisions.

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