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Utica district seeks help of mediator for teacher contract

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Utica — Utica Community Schools is seeking the assistance of a state-appointed mediator as it continues to bargain a new contract with the Utica Education Association.

Superintendent Christine Johns said on Monday in a statement the district remains committed to finding a collaborative agreement with the union.

"There are times when an objective third party is able to help all sides find common ground," Johns said. "The key is an agreement that is fiscally responsible and financially realistic.”  

The district, the state's second-largest and covers north Macomb County, has settled current contracts with seven of its eight employee groups.

Utica Education Association president Liza Parkinson gives an interview at a Nov. 11 rally.

The Utica teachers' union, which has 1,471 members, has been in contract negotiations since March. Its collective bargaining agreement expired June 30. It is seeking a three-year contract.

Union president Liza Parkinson said a letter announcing the decision to seek a mediator was first sent to parents and families on Friday.

"It's really sad the superintendent of schools feels the need to send this letter to the community and try to negotiate through our student and parents," Parkinson said, "instead of sending a team to the table that is fully vested and with the authority to bargain."

Parkinson said her team will participate in the process in good faith and conduct themselves professionally for a hearing with the mediator set for Wednesday.

On Nov. 4, the union filed an unfair labor practice charge against the Utica Community Schools district for alleged violations of the Michigan Public Employment Relations Act.

The union alleges that the UCS bargaining team has “engaged in specific acts of bad faith” and “has sent representatives to the bargaining table without the actual authority to negotiate or reach an agreement.”

That matter is set for a hearing on Jan. 28, Parkinson said.

Parkinson said the union has gone to the bargaining table with the goal of regaining wage losses that have cost the union's members a collective $65 million.

"My teachers are four steps behind on the salary schedule," Parkinson told The News last month. "The traditional way a teacher engages a schedule is to increase one step for every year of service... . We have young teachers who've been there for 10 years. They are on step 4.5 and they should be on 10."

Last month, Parkinson said her members want a contract but have also authorized a "job action" that could result in a sickout or strike after contract negotiations have stalled with the district.

Parkinson said members voted 96.3% to authorize the union's negotiating team to engage in crisis action.

District spokesman Tim McAvoy told The News last month the $65 million the union has referenced was part of negotiated, collaborative agreements with the UEA.

"During this time period, teachers have received step increases, half steps or off-schedule money six of those nine years," McAvoy said. "This represents additional compensation or salary increases."

District officials said since March, the district bargaining team has met with union representatives 22 separate occasions, 15 of which involved the district’s full bargaining team, to put together the details of a new contract.  

On Dec. 9, the board of education approved a three-year agreement with the Utica Paraprofessional Association, an affiliate of the Michigan Education Association.