Some MMSD staff asked to choose between in-person learning or resigning

MADISON, Wis. — Alexis Dean received an ultimatum last week: show up for face-to-face learning or look for a new job.

“It made me feel blindsided in a way,” Dean said.

Dean is a 4K/special educational assistant at Mendota Elementary School. Dean said last week, an email went out asking for volunteers to teach in person at MSCR, just two weeks before school is supposed to start.

“They asked me if I wanted to volunteer to be in person or not. Given the decision, I said I didn’t want to be. I received a follow up email later that week saying I could either work in person or I could choose to resign.”

Madison Metropolitan School District spokesperson Tim Lemonds said, “We have reassigned them. So that is their job. As I have job duties, and you have job duties, these are temporary reassignments.”

Lemonds said the email was sent to staff that the district saw as trained childcare staff who typically work in after school and summer camp environments who are most readily available to work. He added that the staff members who are reassigned can go back to their normal jobs once they are no longer needed in their role, likely when the pandemic is over.

The email that Dean received was sent out to more than 500 staff members asking people to volunteer to help fill the gaps in childcare and educational needs this year at MSCR, according to Lemonds. “We give them the option. If they don’t want to perform the duties of that reassignment, they have the option to resign.”

Lemonds said 70% of staff voluntarily agreed to being reassigned. He said the other 30% were sent a follow-up email giving them the option to accept reassignment or resign.

According to the employee handbook, the district can make educational assistants make “involuntary transfers”, within reason.

“That’s not how you do things,” said MMSD school board member Nicki Vander Meulen. “That’s not how you do open and transparent communication.”

Vander Meulen said she wished she had a vote in the matter, but the district told the board it wasn’t their concern, and “that this would all be done voluntarily, that it would be an absolutely voluntary choice. And that’s not what happened.”

According to the handbook’s clause about the board’s rights, the board has the right to determine the means and methods of instruction, the use of teaching aids and the conditions of employment.

But the decision went around the board, and directly into Dean’s inbox. Lemonds said it’s a decision that the district thinks will help students learn better and place staff in the right places.

Madison Teacher’s Inc. Executive Director Ed Sadlowski said since the email was sent out last week, “a lot of people are really panicking.” Sadlowski said some are worried about teaching in person and possibly bringing home the virus to at-risk family members.

“It’s really just wreaked havoc. We believe students and families deserve the best virtual instruction possible. To force people into this choice is not a choice at all.”

Sadlowski said MTI is trying trying to work with the district, “but we don’t seem to be getting anywhere.” Sadlowski said MTI is going to send over written solutions to continue the conversation.

Lemonds said part of the decision to reassign some staff members was “to continue to keep them employed and receiving a paycheck because that’s important to us, and to also provide a service that’s an essential need.”

“Last year when the school year ended, we were all in the position where we were virtual,” Dean said. “We were all being utilized, we all had a job and we all were doing great things. We can still do that. We don’t have to be limited to in person or nothing.”

Vander Meulen said she knows of several people who will choose to resign given the ultimatum. Dean said he will make his decision on what he will do next by Friday.