No contract means protest

MARQUETTE – Marquette teachers took to the streets this morning, hoping to raise awareness among parents and the community about the ongoing contract struggle between their union and the district.

The Marquette Area Education Association, which represents Marquette Area Public Schools teachers, and the district’s administration have not been able to come to an agreement on a final contract more than halfway through the school year.

In protest, the union organized a “walk-in/walk-out” in which teachers in every school in the district showed up to work today and left at exactly the times they were required to under their prior contract.

Nathan Larson, MAEA co-president, said the teachers have been working for 234 days without a contract.

“We’re having a hard time figuring out a few different issues, everything from class size to teacher pay and insurance,” Larson said. “We’re still meeting with the board and superintendent frequently. But we are having a hard time getting through.”

MAEA co-president Don Barr said today’s demonstration was meant to show how many hours teachers work outside their contractual obligations.

“Maybe the word isn’t disrespect, but certainly in the buildings across Marquette Area Public Schools, the teachers feel undervalued,” Barr said. “They feel like they’re under appreciated. Meanwhile, I think it’s clear that all teachers, not just teachers in Marquette, work every day above and beyond their contract and today’s demonstration is just to show off some of those things here in front of the public.”

Barr said the Marquette school system was fortunate to have a healthy general fund balance and was not struggling financially in the way many other districts across the state are.

“We have seen declining enrollment in the last 10 years, but one of our issues, from the union’s standpoint, is that teachers had seen decreases in their net pay and many teachers have to go back to 2005, 2006 to find the last time that their paychecks were the size that they are right now in the year 2014,” Barr said.

Superintendent Bill Saunders said this morning that raises have been offered to the MAEA during negotiations, but were turned down.

“We have three union groups that have settled for 1 percent off schedule (raise), 2 percent on schedule (raise), 2 percent on schedule (raise),” Saunders said. “If you look at the bargaining timetable we have on there, what we’ve settled with other groups, essentially that same package has been offered to the MAEA.”

An off-schedule payment does not increase base salary, while an on-schedule payment does.

That pay raise schedule is the same Saunders agreed to in his three-year contract with the district. He said offering it to the teachers union would cost roughly $960,000 over the proposed three-year contract period.

“In today’s day and age, we’re trying to be as fiscally responsible as possible. We’ve had to undergo some pretty substantial cuts over the last three, four, five years and those are difficult decisions and we’re trying to avoid that,” Saunders said. “Unfortunately, our revenue comes from our student enrollment and we’ve been down every year for the last 10 years. We’re down10 students from last year.”

Also on hand to lend support during this morning’s protest at Bothwell Middle School were members of the Northern Michigan University chapter of the American Association of University Professors, mostly those in the education department who work with Marquette teachers.

“We want to be supportive of the teachers who are also supporting our program at NMU and our future teachers for their training,” education professor Judy Puncochar said.

The district had trouble finalizing a contract last year, as well, finally getting a 2012-2013 contract signed in October, four months after it expired.