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Teachers union wants Detroit school district to tap rainy day fund for raises

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
"What we’re saying to the school district and the community right now is, ‘This year is a very critical time; teachers are voting with their feet and they are leaving," said Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, calling Friday for increases in teacher salaries in the district.

Detroit — The teachers union for the city's school district is urging the administration to dip into its rainy day fund to bolster the pay of its members following years of sacrifices.

The proposal from the Detroit Federation of Teachers comes amid negotiations with the Detroit Public Schools Community District over wages for the final year of athree-year contract.

The two sides have spent months discussing options, and the union in recent days argued its case before the district's Financial Review Commission, which has the final say on its finances and contract decisions. 

"The frustration that our members have expressed over the last 10 to 15 years is really coming to a head at this point," said Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federal of Teachers, to media Friday at the union's office on Second Avenue.

The district, Martin said, has a $140 million in reserve, the highest in years, and the administration has agreed that teachers deserve a pay boost. It's time, he said, "that the school district puts their money where their mouth is."

"We understand that tapping into that one-time money is not a long-term strategy to really fixing this issue," Martin said. "In the very short term, the money is there. We're not asking for the entire $140 million."

Martin's remarks come after more than 400 teachers and union employees from the district packed a board of education meeting this month to demand pay increases, improved building conditions and more resources.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has agreed that teachers should be paid more but said that the disparity in wages is due to state funding formulas. He urged teachers take their concerns to state leaders who determine district funding.

Vitti on Friday said in a statement that he and the school board were committed to making Detroit teachers "the highest paid teachers in the state and nation," but Vitti balked at using the rainy day fund and instead "strategically advocating for statewide policy changes that abolish inequitable funding for districts such as DPSCD."

"For the first time in over a decade, we have maintained a balanced budget for three years and are only months away from being released from direct financial oversight from the state," Vitti said in a statement. "A number of doubters questioned whether this could be achieved. Every reputable organization maintains a reserve and fund balance. This was considered impossible only a few years ago.

"Our fund balance is one-time funding. Once used, it is gone. It is not reoccurring revenue. This means that if we spend it on salaries we create a funding hole the following year. Spending our fund balance on salaries would repeat the financial sins of the district’s past."

He said the rainy day fund would be used for one-time expenses such as technology, emergency building repairs and long-term needs such as new school roofs.

In the initial years of the contract, teachers at the top of the pay scale were given 3% and 4% raises, respectively, and others were given step increases. 

Martin declined to reveal the specific percentage increases that the union is looking for, but said at the least, he wants teachers to be made whole from where they were a decade ago. The union represents about 3,000 teachers. 

"What we’re saying to the school district and the community right now is, ‘This year is a very critical time; teachers are voting with their feet and they are leaving," he said. 

The union hopes a deal can be reached quickly. The contract expires in June 2020. 

On Thursday, the Michigan Education Association put out a call for more investment in the state's schools, citing a national report that shows teacher salaries continue to decline.

The study, by the National Education Association's annual Rankings and Estimates report, found average salary for teachers declined last year, continuing the 12% decline over the last decade, when adjusted for inflation. 

“Far too many educators are struggling with low and declining pay, and this is especially the case in Michigan, where teachers have seen declines in pay for the past decade,” MEA president Paula Herbart said in a statement. 

Starting teacher salaries in Michigan rank 32nd in the nation. Nationwide, 37% of districts have a starting salary of at least $40,000. In Michigan, only 12% of districts meet that threshold.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has advocated for a $507 million boost in K-12 funding for students, public school teachers and support professionals as part of her budget proposal.

Martin said action from Lansing and consistent student growth will aid Detroit in its efforts to adequately pay teachers. 

Enrollment in the district is up by more than 4,800 students in the last three years, Vitti said last month, bringing the district up to nearly 51,000 students in 106 schools.

Wage talks took a back seat in recent weeks amid debate with the district's administration over a new school calendar. 

The proposed calendar included a pre-Labor Day start, recognition of a Muslim holiday, a shortened winter break and an additional five work days for teachers. 

The district's board approved the calendar in mid-April. A week later, about 250 teachers voted unanimously to oppose it.

Vitti has said that the teacher's union leadership issued a verbal agreement in support of the calendar, approving it after weeks of negotiations. Martin has said there was never an agreement, despite Vitti's claim.

Vitti rescinded the new school calendar and said the district will use the same calendar as this school year.