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Union leader calls for Madison schools to close during planned sickout

The Madison School District is preparing for "excessive" teacher absences Wednesday, and a teacher union leader urged school be closed because few teachers are expected to show up for work.

School officials announcement Tuesday in a letter to parents they expected many teachers to call in sick Wednesday.

The letter was distributed the same day nearly 800 Madison East High School students — half the school — walked out to participate in a demonstration at the state Capitol protesting Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to limit public employee bargaining power.

Students at West, Memorial and at other schools around the state — from Shullsburg to Sheboygan — also participated in demonstrations during school hours.

As of Tuesday evening, Superintendent Dan Nerad said a higher-than-usual number of teachers had called in sick for Wednesday, though he declined to disclose exact numbers. He said the district would monitor the expected absences overnight before deciding whether to cancel school.

"Our goal is to have schools open (Wednesday)," Nerad said.

Teachers who take a sick day will be asked to show proof of a medical reason, Nerad said. Those who don't could face sanctions such as docked pay. Teachers aren't able to take a personal day unless they give three days notice.

According to the letter sent to parents, principals are developing contingency staffing plans, receiving lists of specific student medical needs, and may have district staff assisting in their schools.

Buses are expected to run as usual, breakfast and lunch will be served, though most likely not the scheduled menu, and parents should call the office if they have individual meetings scheduled with principals, as the meetings may be rescheduled, the letter said.

Stacy Billings, a parent of two Madison students, said the district's letter upset her. She said she supports unions and opposes Walker's proposal, but is against a teacher protest during school hours.

"That's not acceptable to me," Billings said. "My tax dollars pay for the teachers to teach and not to protest."

John Matthews, executive director of Madison Teachers Inc., said the union hadn't encouraged any specific action by teachers or students, though he called the student walkout a "teachable moment."

"What teachers are doing is following their own conscience," Matthews said.

East High Senior Ona Powell, whose mother is a Madison teacher and father is a professor, coordinated the walkout through Facebook and word-of-mouth at school on Monday.

"I felt outraged that unions are being attacked and didn't want my mom hurt by this," Powell said.

As teachers beamed and offered thanks, student organizers in the hallways handed out signs identifying each as a "future worker, future voter," proclaiming this was a "Walk out for Walker out," and calling on the Legislature to "kill this bill."


Students said teachers appeared torn by their clear support for what their students were doing, but also awareness that they weren't supposed to encourage student political activity.

Travis Turnquist, a senior who stayed at East Tuesday because his parents, a credit card agent and construction worker, didn't grant him permission to leave, said the protest was the topic of discussion in every class Monday. Though teachers mostly responded to questions from curious students, some were telling students they wouldn't be marked absent if they walked out, Turnquist said.

Madison School Board policy states "teachers shall refrain from exploiting the institutional privileges of their professional positions to promote candidates or parties and activities," which includes protests.

Also Tuesday, the Madison School Board issued a statement urging Walker to reconsider the legislation.

State Journal reporter Barry Adams contributed to this story.


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Tags: labor, unions, wisconsin
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