Education: The Hortonville 84

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From his shop, Butcher Mike Arendt looked out across Main Street to the aging building that serves as headquarters for the town's striking teachers. Then he lowered his voice and measured his words carefully: "If it's not settled soon, the townspeople are getting ready to take things into their own hands."

At the red brick Hortonville Community School, Sheriff Calvin Spice and eight of his Outagamie County deputies sat in unmarked patrol cars, watching striking teachers walk the picket line. As cars of newly hired, strikebreaking teachers arrived, the pickets clustered around and taunted them with cries of "Scabby!" and "Traitor!" Said Sheriff Spice: "Nothing has happened yet, but a lot of people are afraid that it might."

For the past ten weeks, the tiny Wisconsin community of Hortonville (pop. 1,524) has been the scene of a bitterly divisive dispute between 84 district teachers and the school board that has turned neighbor against neighbor, caused dozens of arrests, and touched off a wave of vandalism. Windows in the strike headquarters have been smashed. Striking teachers, their replacements and board members have been victims of threatening phone calls and tire slashings, and their homes sprayed with paint. The school is kept locked while classes are in session, and parents patrol the halls and guard the entrances.

Eighty of the 1,935 students in the consolidated school have withdrawn and enrolled elsewhere, some in a tutorial program run by the striking teachers.

Hortonville seems an unusual setting for an angry labor battle. Immaculately kept dairy farms, interspersed with scattered forests and sparkling streams, dot the countryside. But the farmers and pulp-mill workers tend to be bedrock conservatives (oldtimers still revere the late Senator Joseph McCarthy, who grew up in Grand Chute twelve miles away), and anti-union sentiment runs high.

Thus, when the town's teachers walked out on strike in March after failing in 14 months of negotiations to reach a contract, the school board was in no mood to compromise; it fired all of the teachers and hired substitutes. The harsh action — unprecedented in Wisconsin — transformed a dispute over rou tine work issues and a small difference in salary (the union asked a base wage of $8,100; the board offered $7,900) into a major test of the state's collective-bargaining law. That statute prohibits public employees from striking and has no provision for binding arbitration.

Kept Apart. As a show of support for the "Hortonville 84" — as the fired teachers call themselves — 500 Wisconsin teachers poured into town over the Easter recess, staging a mass march and blocking traffic with sitdowns. They were greeted by a truckload of self-styled vigilantes and a group of farmers, who met them at the school with canes and broom handles. Police managed to keep the two sides apart, but the ten days of turmoil resulted in 73 arrests (nearly all for obstructing law officers, with a few for disorderly conduct).

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