The View From Wisconsin

Just a random set of rants from a Sports Fan from Wisconsin.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Eighteen Years

18 years ago, I got an offer to work for the state of Wisconsin at a juvenile corrections facility located (at the time) about an hour's drive away from where I was living. For about six months, I commuted back and forth between home and there.

Right before I got married, my fiancee and I moved to Waukesha, to be closer to my job. She found work out here, and I got my time in. I really thought that I was in the right job, the right place, the right thing to do.

And then I had a year where I was seemingly living a nightmare. An entire cottage of kids hated me, manipulated me, wanted to see me quit or fired. To avoid it, I went on to third shift in November of 1994. I never left.

After some years of struggling, both personally and professionally, I got into the hang of things. There were some rough spots along the way - things were forced upon us by the people in Madison that we really didn't want, but turned out we needed.

About nine years ago, I got the opportunity that I thought would be "it" for me - working as third shift staff in the reception cottage of the institution. I could stay there, retire there - just like the person I was replacing.

The institution's numbers started to go down at that point, though. Within a couple of years, we had two cottages completely shuttered. The old Hospital Building was completely unoccupied except for staff - and their numbers were dropping as well. Years of budget cuts, deferred maintenance and management turnover were catching up to us. Staff morale had hit lows that you couldn't even begin to quantify.

Then, in August of 2009, the first shoe dropped: I got a phone call from my supervisor, notifying me that my cottage - the reception cottage - was going to be closed. They were going to move the program elsewhere and shutter the cottage completely. I was going to be on utility position - essentially, "extra staff" - for the rest of my time in the institution.

Only I didn't know it at the time.

Then there was last year. Hoo boy, was there last year. I have learned over the years that the job of no state worker is safe as long as either the legislature is in session, or as long as there's someone with political clout in Madison has a beef with your workplace. I learned that the hard way with my dad and his job at Southern Center.

And that's when our division administrator convinced our previous governor, Jim Doyle, to convene a "committee to review juvenile corrections as a whole." However, it came out very shortly thereafter that this "committee" had an agenda:

Close Ethan Allen School.

It got as far as a final meeting, and it was only because the three judges who were on the committee removed themselves from any voting on the subject that it didn't get the six votes needed to pass. But the vote was 5-3 in favor of closing EAS.

I went into the election season last year with great trepidation. We all thought that if we elected Tom Barrett, that would mean that our division administrator would remain on board. And we'd be sunk.

However, we also knew about the other guy. Scott Walker was known to be very anti-union and anti-state employee as a whole. As I drove past the Country Springs Hotel on election night, where the Walker campaign was having its victory party, I wondered if we had won the battle, but lost the war.

It looked a lot like we had when the budget repair bill came out last month. Restricting union bargaining to only wages – which was ridiculous, because the state held the purse strings – was a sign that it would become that much harder to be a state employee.

Earlier this month, though, my fate was sealed. Our division administrator, after being allowed to stay on in "transition", was given her job back. The next day, Ethan Allen's closure was outlined in the state budget.

And now, I'm faced with no longer working at the one place I've worked for the last 18 years of my life – the only thing I've done, the only thing I've known, the only people and friends I've lived with, laughed with, commiserated with.

18 years. Gone, just like that.

Of course, the worst part is that it isn't immediate. I still get to see the whole argument over collective bargaining, budget bills and everything go swimming around. And now there's the state rep from the area of the facility who wants the state to sell the land that EAS is on.

Meanwhile, there's a sudden realization that's hit me and my fellow staff: there aren't very many job positions out there, except to go to LHS or to some other corrections facility in Elsewhere, Wisconsin.

And there is that quote from one of the teachers (Mary Joas, from at EAS:

"I can't move to northern Wisconsin only to find out my job is being terminated again."

I feel the exact same way. In two years, four, six, whatever, who's to say that there will be any amount of youth up at LHS? If costs to send the youth go up, there will be even less and less incentive for the counties to send youth to a state facility; they're more likely to waive youth to adult court and deal with it that way. And there goes any savings they'd have in closing a facility.

I started writing this two days after the announcement came down. I was one of the unlucky ones who heard about it through the internet, and not from my supervisor or otherwise at work.

A week's gone by, and though I've managed to get over it enough to do my job, it's frustrating that there doesn't seem to be a light at the end of this tunnel.

I have some ideas where I'd like to try to go. I may, in fact, try to see about transferring to adult, or even to a DHS facility. But it's going to be hard with a house that I have to pay for.

Eighteen years ago, I thought I had landed a career that I could be proud of.

I'm more ashamed of it right now than anything.

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