Teachers in Utica, Taylor protest contract negotiations

Jennifer Chambers and Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Teachers in Utica and Taylor are working to bring attention to challenges they say they face in union negotiations in their districts.

Members of the Utica Education Association demonstrated Monday in Sterling Heights ahead of the district’s regularly scheduled school board meeting.

The district, located in Macomb County, is the second largest in the state. The union contract, which expired in June, covered 1,440 teachers and professionally certified staff.

Eliza Parkinson, president of the Utica Education Association, said there has been little progress toward an agreement. The two sides have been engaged in negotiations for nearly a year.

“We are asking for the district to actually bargain with us,” Parkinson said. “We believe the superintendent is driving all decision making, and the board isn’t being given a full picture.”

Union officials say they want to partner with the district and rethink how buildings are used and add programs such as a vocational high school.

District officials say this school year, budgeted expenditures have outpaced revenue by $8.3 million. The fund balance is $20.7 million and projected to be $12.4 million at the end of the school year.

Earlier this school year, the district laid off about 15 teachers after enrollment dropped by about 500 students. Last year, the district had 27,735 students.

District spokesman Tim McAvoy issued a statement Monday saying the district has an “unsustainable financial model” that needs to be addressed as part of its contract agreement with its teachers union, a conclusion a fact-finding team reached last week as part of a series of recommendations issued to bargaining teams.

The district is not in the red, McAvoy said, “but, as the fact finder states, we must address our economic realities.”

McAvoy said George T. Roumell Jr., a labor expert who met with bargaining teams from the district and the union, said “the parties will not be able to sustain their current economic situation. The economics are just not there. The state is not funding Utica as Utica should be funded.”

If the district falls below 5 percent fund equity, the state can intervene, McAvoy said.

“In the view of the fact finder, the time has come to settle the contract now and move on,” Roumell wrote in his report, McAvoy said.

But some in the union disagreed with the information presented at the board meeting Monday. And an estimated 500 staffers earlier demonstrated outside the Joan C. Sergent IRC building, carrying signs such as “Cuts Hurt” and “All We Want for Christmas Is a Contract” amid falling snow and dropping temperatures.

Chris Brown, a fifth-grade teacher who followed other relatives into education, feared how potential cuts could affect his pocketbook.

“I want to be able to do my job. If I can’t afford to do that, unfortunately I can’t,” he said, adding that speaking out also takes a toll. “I’m just upset about the amount of time I have to spend on this when I could be making things better for my students.”

McAvoy said the finding affirms the district’s fiscal challenges caused by formulas used for state funding and continued loss of student enrollment through reduced birth rates.

The report said the district has an average teacher salary that is the highest of all Michigan districts with enrollment of more than 2,500 students, McAvoy said, and that among the top districts with the highest average salaries, Utica also had the lowest overall funding level per student.

According to the most recent agreement with the union that ended June 30, staffers ranked at the first “step” in their district career who had a bachelor’s degree could earn a salary of $39,310 — $40,826 if they had a master's.

The salary schedule called for those with additional education to make more, and at the final, 28th “step,” the highest-paid workers — ones holding a doctorate — could earn nearly $100,000.

The average district salary in 2015-16 was $80,334. Foundation allowance in 2015-16 was $7,572 per pupil.

“These are brutal facts leading to the structural deficit and the potential for putting Utica on fiscal stress by the state of Michigan,” Roumell said in the report, McAvoy said.

Roumell issued 14 financial recommendations based on proposals submitted by the negotiations teams. They address salary, benefits and duration of the agreement, McAvoy said.

The recommendations in the report, which was made public late Monday, include offering furlough days and adjusting how quickly teachers can reach a certain salary level.

Parkinson said the union is challenging the report and disputes its findings.

During the meeting, dozens of members held up cardboard signs as board and district officials spoke. One cited the 99.3 percent vote members took at a recent meeting indicating they had little confidence in the superintendent’s leadership.

“We know our negotiators are working really hard to get a fair and equitable contract, and we want the district to do the same,” said Annette Christiansen, a high school English teacher who has been in the district for 19 years. “As teachers, we want to be able to continue to put our students first. And the only way to do that is for me and other teachers to not have to worry about our own biological children.”

A deadline for finalizing an agreement with the union is in February, McAvoy said.

Meanwhile, negotiations also are drawing attention in Taylor.

Taylor Federation of Teachers members were expected to gather at the Taylor Federation of Teachers' Office on Monday and march to the Taylor board of education meeting to protest concessions they say the district is asking them to take.

Linda Moore, president of the Taylor Federation of Teachers, said educators, community members and students are coming together to support the educators of the Wayne County district as they are being asked to take concessions.

“Teachers’ working conditions are our students’ learning conditions. When teacher unions bargain a contract, they are not only bargaining for the people who are in front of our children every day, they are bargaining for our students. Class size, classroom supplies, curriculum, just to name a few important issues,” she said.

In 2013, the union ratified a contract that was concessionary in order to ensure the survival of the district, Moore said. Union members gave up thousands of dollars each, Moore said, allowing the district to eliminate a $13 million deficit.

Five years later, the district is proposing that teachers take additional concessions, she said.

Moore said students deserve additional learning opportunities, reduced class sizes and enriched curriculum.

“We demand that the Taylor School District invest in our classrooms,” she said.

District officials were not immediately available.