MAPS badly mishandled teachers contract issue

If you were confused after reading Mining Journal stories in recent days that detail questions concerning whether or not a legal contract is in place for the current school year between the Marquette Area Education Association and the school board, join the crowd. We don’t think there is a contract and neither does the guy who negotiated on behalf of the school district last year.

It is our understanding that the school district by law should have the current collective bargaining agreement for each bargaining unit posted on their website. They don’t. When we asked why, we were told the school board declined to sign the final agreement because it contained illegal language pertaining to teacher tenure reforms that went into effect in 2011.

Muddying these waters further is the contention by UniServ Director Stu Skauge and school Superintendent Deb Veiht that the tentative agreement, which the sides’ representatives signed in August 2012, is binding and that a final, signed contract isn’t necessary. We don’t understand how it went from an amicable tentative agreement to a fundamental dispute that has dragged on for months.

According to MAPS chief negotiator Bob Witter, who handled negotiations until the tentative agreement was OK’d, there is no contract. That’s the way it looks to us, too. Further, we believe this may place the district in violation of Public Act 54, which states public employers, such as schools, that have no contract cannot pay step increases. Veiht has confirmed that step increases were, in fact, paid to teachers after the tentative agreement was approved but without a final, signed contract.

If there is no contract, the union may be in violation of right-to-work legislation that went into effect Thursday by continuing to collect fees and dues from nonmembers. Skauge, however, claims “without a doubt” there is a binding agreement in place between the parties. So does Veiht, citing legal counsel.

This is all related to a contract that supposedly went into effect on July 1, 2012, yet which only the union has signed. Clearly, something was terribly mishandled by the school board and administration. All the language for this contract should have been done, completed, signed and posted, just after the tentative agreement was signed in August.

Veiht claims the offending language was replaced in the final agreement after the tentative agreement was signed because the union wouldn’t sign a final contract without it. She further claims that Skauge threatened to file an unfair labor practice charge against the district unless the language was included. At that point, Veiht should have told Skauge, “See you in court.”

This is a mess of epic proportions that never should have happened. It’s left the MAPS board with all kinds of damage control to do just months before voters will be asked to approve a millage renewal the district must have to operate properly. We have been skeptical in the past about MAPS millage requests but, in the case of the renewal, we are inclined to believe it’s necessary to keep a healthy school district in place. But, before they vote yes, voters must be convinced and confidence in district operations has to be restored.

The current board of education has said it wants to run a transparent operation. A good indication of that was when they recently corrected a misstatement relative to delaying the millage renewal request because they needed more time to inform the public. The real reason, they said this week, was because they blew the deadline for filing the paperwork for the May election.

The board must acknowledge that mistakes were made and offer a complete explanation as to what happened in this fiasco instead of trying to convince us a contract they won’t sign is still a contract. The electorate has a right to know the full story so the district can move forward in a positive way. As a practical matter, it may ultimately fall to the Michigan Attorney General’s office to determine if the school ran afoul of Michigan law by offering a final agreement laden with illegal language.

Meanwhile, the Marquette school board is left to explain why we are discussing whether there is a legal contract in place with the teachers union some nine months after the agreement should have been signed by both parties and posted on the school website.