IM teachers, school board address lack of contract

IRON MOUNTAIN – Emotions were running high at Monday’s meeting of the Iron Mountain School District Board of Education.

Michigan Education Association (MEA) members from around the state, the staff at Iron Mountain Schools and other residents voiced their concerns about the lack of a contract for the teaching staff.

The school district and members of the Iron Mountain Education Association (IMEA) have been negotiating for more than a year to come up with a ratified contract.

In November, the Iron Mountain Schools Board of Education learned that the district was in a deficit spending situation. The state requires school districts in that position to come up with a plan to get out of the deficit in three years.

Iron Mountain is dealing with a $252,000 deficit now expected at the end of this fiscal year.

The deficit is related to the loss of students – 941 expected and 888 for the count at the beginning of the school year. That equated to a decrease of $387,000 in revenue, and with expenditures paired down some and using up the remaining fund balance, the deficit expected is $252,000.

Stuart Skauge, of the Ishpeming MEA office, told the board that employees are the most important asset – something that businesses realize but schools don’t.

“I challenge you to realize that the classroom teacher is your most important asset and make sure they are compensated appropriately. You have great kids and a great community here. …”

And what people expect is a good education. You need to settle this contract and compensate your teachers fairly. This is where the rubber meets the road – in the classroom,” Skauge said.

Terry LaJeunesse, MEA director from Hancock, told the board that the MEA members all came here – from Lansing, Ironwood, Hancock, Alpena, Ishpeming and Petoskey – because they are concerned about their members in Iron Mountain.

“This is a crisis community and we want to show our support and urge that you work diligently to come up with a fair, equitable contract. School boards look at teachers as a liability that is costing the district money. But they are the ones that are providing education for our children and making the school successful,” LaJeunesse said.

Rick Trainor, secretary-treasurer of the MEA from Mount Pleasant, noted that he came into town earlier that day and witnessed the interaction between students and teacher involved in the Pennies for Prescription event organized by the teacher’s group.

“You have great people here. The position you are put in as volunteers serving the community like this is unfair. But as a board you have to have the courage not to do Lansing’s bidding anymore. Your teachers want to do well for their families with a decent contract. I’m asking you to stand shoulder to shoulder as teachers, administration and board members against Lansing on this and not fight with each other anymore,” Trainor said.

“You are looking to reduce $150,000 in salary and benefits from your budget, but it’s time to fight Lansing on this. If you do this cut, they are going to laugh at you and say they can take more from you. I urge you to discuss this with your community leaders and representatives. What’s going on in Lansing is not your fault or your staff’s,” he added.

Katie Maxon, of 1300 E. Grand Boulevard Circle in Iron Mountain, said that she understood that this is not something that the board wants to do.

“I hate to see you make cuts like this; it has to be negotiated with the staff,” she said. “If it’s not accepted, is there a long term plan in place? Then what? As a parent I’m worried that is going to happen and what else will be cut. I know your hands are tied, but I agree that it’s time to get active in Lansing and do something about this.”

Mary Couper, of 633 Detroit Ave. in Iron Mountain, questioned that fact that the estimated enrollment for this year was off so much more than anticipated – from 941 to 888.

“Have you reached out to find out why and fix what’s broken? It you need more revenue – more students is the answer or cuts at the top. You also need to promote this district and add AP courses in the high school – set the bar high with expectations. I’m tired of all the gloom and doom – you need to look at marketing strategies to showcase the district. Teachers are doing a terrific job and doing more with less. They are the true leaders of this district,” Couper said.

Emily Ritsema of Iron Mountain, who is a music teacher at the Breitung Township Schools, also wanted to show her support for the Iron Mountain teachers.

“You have a wonderful staff – they are incredible. But if you don’t feel appreciated, it’s hard to do your best. No matter what happens with money, support your teachers. You can work out these money issues together by supporting each other,” Ritsema said.

Board Vice President Jeff Michaud thanked everyone who made comments to the board. “We value our teachers here and have been working to get through this hard situation we are in.”

Supt. Tom Jayne also thanked the people who commented at the meeting. He also added that he tries hard to send e-mails and express to his staff how much they are appreciated.

With the school funding issue, he noted that Board Member Mark Pontti had met with State Senator Tom Casperson and State Rep. Ed McBroom on getting back the $400 a student in state aid that was taken from the district several years ago. Casperson had also talked with Jayne and felt that if every board in the state would pass a resolution and bombard Lansing with action on this issue that it would be heard.

Jayne also said that he has been working and has a tentative offer to sell Central School as a way to gain some revenue for the district.

“We’re doing as much as we can right now. We are going through a rough patch, but together we can’t fail,” Jayne said.

He added that although he can’t say who is interested in the property, there is “high interest and sound dialogue” going on about it. And if it moves forward, there will be public forums set up to answer questions about what the building will be used for.

The discussion right now is preliminary, but the property would be used for housing for people, age 55 and older.

Jayne also told the board and people gathered at the meeting that the state has $1.3 billion in a rainy day fund, and of that amount, $900 million was taken away from school districts three years ago.

“It equates to $400 a student and $360,000 we never received,” he said.

Responding the loss of students this school year, Jayne said that four different meetings were set up to talk with parents to find out why students withdrew from the district. He said that there were 50 contacted and only one showed up for a meeting.

On the issue of marketing, he said that they have someone coming in to meet with them on Thursday to discuss what they can do. In addition, there are six planned school improvement and curriculum meetings set up to discuss what more they can offer students.

“If we bond together and stand shoulder to shoulder together – the kids will come. We want to settle this contract. No one wants to see layoffs or salary reductions. We need to bombard Lansing about this money that was taken from us three years ago – it would make a big difference in our funding,” Jayne said.

At Monday’s meeting, the board also:

– Accepted a letter of retirement from Elementary Principal Bob Strang with regret. Strang will retire at the end of the current school year – June 30 – after speng 18 years in the district and 31 years n education. “Words cannot express how much you have affected the students in this district. This is a hard letter to accept, but I wish you a happy and healthy retirement,” Jayne said.

– Passed a resolution for the Best Practices initiative, which offers an incentive to school districts that complete seven out of eight requirements. The Iron Mountain School District completed all eight, and is asking the state for as much as is allowed with this funding.

– Hired Richard Rossato as the communications information technology person for the Iron Mountain-Kingsford Community Schools.