Union up in arms over board moves, coverage

MARQUETTE – At times contentious but always emotional, more than two hours of public comment on contract negotiations was heard during the Marquette school board’s meeting Monday.

Most of the more than 20 people who commented were members of the Marquette Area Education Association, the only Marquette Area Public Schools union still negotiating a contract for the current year.

The MAEA represents Marquette teachers, all of whom took issue with at least one of two items printed in recent editions of The Mining Journal. Many took issue with both.

The first was an informational graphic titled “Teachers’ Earnings, MAPS 184-day work contract” that ran Feb. 28 with a story titled “Financial particulars” that examined teacher pay and benefits. The second was the editorial in Sunday’s newspaper that focused on negotiations between the union and the district.

Many were upset over the characterization of their job as taking 184 days, saying no notice was taken of hours spent working at home, weekends spent working and time taken over the summer holiday to prepare for the coming year.

MAEA Co-president Nathan Larson said the board was providing the public – via the newspaper and through direct communications with community members – with deceitful information and hiding behind fiscal responsibility as the main reason steps and lanes cannot be provided.

Steps are pay increases based on years of experience and lanes are pay increases based on the educational level of the teacher. The teachers have asked for steps and lanes in their proposals to the district. The district has not included them in its proposals.

“Two weeks ago our pay was published in the paper, displayed using one of these misleading graphs. It made it appear that all teachers started at $62,000,” Larson said as the crowd laughed. “After three years of teaching, my W-2 says less than $25,000, not $62,000.”

Larson said teachers are watching their take home pay go down while board President Rich Rossway has been telling people they have gotten raises every year for 15 years.

“The public now has both truthful and deceitful information and none of it makes the district look good,” Larson said.

Fred Cole, a teacher with 14 years in the Marquette district, said the board was asking teachers to go backward financially, using a powerpoint entitled “The Truth About Teacher Negotiations (a.k.a. You can’t believe everything you hear or read in the newspaper)” to help illustrate his point.

Stu Skauge, the Michigan Education Association Uniserv Director for Marquette and Alger counties, said a teacher with a $34,000 salary was seeing an actual take-home pay of $17,000 due to health care and pension costs.

He said the poverty line for a family of three is $19,000.

“There’s something wrong with that,” Skauge said.

He also said in his years of negotiating experience, he had never seen so much negotiating being done in the local media.

Many teachers were also upset with what they saw as the implication from the editorial that teachers are only looking to make money and don’t really care about anything else.

The teachers have spoken out previously, and continued to at Monday’s meeting, about increasing class sizes and the increasing cost of their health insurance.

Sophia Novak, a 2013 graduate of the Marquette Alternative High School, offered the board a different viewpoint – that of a former MAPS student and the daughter of a MAPS teacher.

Novak gave an impassioned speech to the board, saying her mother couldn’t attend the meeting because she was working a second job to make up for the $7,000 pay cut she took in the last year. She was one of a few children, spouses or other relative of a teacher to speak.

A couple of people with no relatives who were teachers also spoke in favor of the teachers.

Jamie Randall, a member of Citizens United for Better Schools and part of the district’s strategic planning team, called for civility on both sides, asking for an end to mud slinging.

School board Secretary/Treasurer Jean Hetrick implored everyone gathered in the auditorium to contact their state representatives in Lansing about education.

Rossway said the district had to be fiscally responsible and deal with declining enrollment and cuts to education funding.

“It’s been on the back of the teachers, I agree 100 percent,” Rossway said. “We’re just trying to be fiscally responsible and hopefully we can come to an agreement. I think we’re getting close, and I know that’s certainly the will of the board.”

Following the at times tense meeting, the board voted 4-1 to go into closed session to discuss union negotiations. Trustee Scott Brogan cast the dissenting vote, expressing some interest in discussing the negotiations in an open session in light of comments made during the meeting.

Trustees Brian Cherry and Laura Songer were not in attendance.