MPS again delays action on implementing benefits

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The Milwaukee Public Schools Board has again delayed action on facilitating access to domestic partner benefits for MPS employees.

The current application process is more burdensome than any used by other employers in Wisconsin, say equality advocates.

The system is based on a mysterious $65,000 report commissioned by MPS, a report that the school board has refused to make available despite requests from Equality Wisconsin and the ACLU of Wisconsin under freedom of information laws. 

In May, the board agreed to review the system in advance of the July school board meeting. But at that meeting, board members released a report defending the unwieldy and unusual procedures already in place, while continuing to duck questions about their origin.

Responding to protesters attending the meeting, the school board promised to revisit the matter, but it has failed to do so every month since then. Ironically, the latest pass given to the issue occurred at a meeting held on Spirit Day, a day when people are encouraged to wear purple to show their opposition to the bullying of LGBT students.

“It’s an unconscionable tragedy that on Spirit Day … Milwaukee Public Schools continue to stonewall on this important issue and infringe upon the negotiated benefits of their employees. This is yet another example of bullying faced by hard working LGBT public servants,” said Equality Wisconsin executive director Jason Burns.

In addition to an application process that former school board member Jennifer Morales described as an obstacle course, MPS estimated the value of the benefits at $20,000, twice the amount set by other local governments and school boards. That estimate creates an excess tax of nearly $3,700 for each employee and $755 per policy for the employer, according to EW.

Heterosexual married couples pay no taxes on health benefits and must simply present a marriage license to qualify. But domestic partners must produce extensive proof of their relationships, including life insurance policies, wills, mortgages, checking accounts and credit cards in both names, along with other documentation. 

Equality advocates contend that couples should not have to submit anything but proof of domestic partner registration, which is what other employers require. 

WiG first reported on the issue in an Aug. 7 story titled “Milwaukee Public Schools stonewalls on partner benefits.” Two months later, WiG received an email from MPS chief human services officer Karen Jackson charging that the story “contained numerous misrepresentations, mischaracterized the implementation of domestic partner benefits … and assailed the character of dedicated and fair public servants.”

She said WiG had not contacted the MPS communication office or filed an open records request, as EW and the ACLU of Wisconsin have done unsuccessfully.

While the school board has repeatedly told EW that it is reviewing the terms of the application process, Jackson said the board has no authority in the matter.

“The eligibility rules were in fact negotiated with the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA) – not unilaterally decided upon or implemented by the board, the superintendent or his administration,” Jackson said. She added that the rules were not discriminatory toward gay and lesbian couples, because they are also applied to unmarried opposite-sex couples.

Calls to Jackson’s office were not returned, and the MPS communication office could not clarify the situation.