Cuts, contracts and concerns

By Tom Wheadon & Callie Whiteman
managing feature & insight

Since the summer of 2010, the district has been negotiating with the Midland City Education Association (MCEA) regarding contracts for over 450 MPS employees, the majority of whom are teachers. The MCEA is a labor union which represents these employees while MPS’s bargaining team consists of administrators.

Due to what both parties acknowledge as tough financial times, MPS has proposed a contract offer for its employees that would see them make a number of concessions. While teachers and the MCEA have stated they’re both willing to make cuts, the debate still rages on as to what extent is necessary.

•THE ISSUE

For the past decade, the district has been gradually losing money as a result of declining enrollment and the money they receive per pupil from the state.

“Over the last number of years we’ve experienced a significant loss of revenue,” Linda Cline, the Director of Finance for MPS, said.

“This most current year is $470 less per student. So times over 8000 students, that’s a pretty good chunk of money.”

Taking into account state changes to school funding and spending, Cline’s projections indicate the district will continue to lose money.

“If we were to spend our full amount this year, we would be spending four and a half million dollars more than we’re actually bringing in through our revenue,” Cline said. “Looking ahead to what we think next year will look like, that figure could go up to $11 million, where we’re spending more than we’re bringing in.”

While many teachers realize that MPS is hurting financially, there have been some concerns raised over the accuracy of the projections and to what degree the district finds itself losing money.

“Over the past several years, we’ve been told, ‘we anticipate a shortfall,’” English teacher and labor union representative Dawn Moulthrop-Brady said. Last year we anticipated a shortfall, and yet at the end of the fiscal year, they put 2.3 million dollars back into their general fund.”

This additional money was used to purchase nine new buses.

“If you had $2.3 million sitting in excess, that’s great, and that should also say to everyone we’re not in dire financial straits,” Moulthrop said.

Math teacher Jason Gehoski, who is on the negotiating team for the MCEA, is also dubious of the numbers the district is claiming.

“The trend that’s taken place is that every year we say we’re going to lose millions of dollars, yet seven out of the last 10 years, we’ve put money in the bank,” Gehoski said.

•MPS’ PROPOSAL

The negotiations between the district and the union cover four areas: salaries, health insurance, class size and a new formula linking teacher wages and the general fund.

The district’s proposal would see its employees’ wages be reduced one percent for the current school year and a further reduced by seven percent next year. They’d also be required to contribute between 1.9 percent and 4.5 percent of their income to their healthcare coverage, meaning a teacher with a family would see 12.5 percent off their pay checks next year.

“The seven percent might sound pretty harsh in the sense of one year, but this negotiation goes back two years ago,” Gary Verlinde, assistant superintendent and the district’s Chief Spokesperson, said. “The proposals we were making at that time were spread out over a three year contract and they were very manageable. Problem is, we have not been able to reach a contract.”

Verlinde also expressed the need for teachers to contribute towards their health insurance, something administrators have already been doing for two years and which costs over $13,000 per family.

“Teachers have not in the past contributed, and that’s one of the things we think that any settlement has to include: fair share of paying for health insurance,” Verlinde said.

On top of this, the district wants to raise class sizes up to 32 pupils, from the current 30, and introduce the Grosse Pointe Formula, which would potentially see teacher wages reduced even more if MPS’s general fund were to dip below 10 percent.

“Our discrepancy with that is the fact that the fund balance is controlled completely by the district,” Gehoski said, referring to the Grosse Point formula. “They can save money and spend money at their will.”

Gehoski is also worried about the implications this proposal would have on teachers if it were to be passed.

“We believe that some teachers would be financially strapped to the point where they would have to get second jobs,” Gehoski said. “They would have to leave this profession to go get a different job that supports themselves and their family.”

Moulthrop shares similar concerns.

“I can’t fathom why you would want to go that deep, to cut so deep into a person’s livelihood,” Moulthrop said.

Verlinde recognizes this potential effect this could have on teachers, but believes there are no other options at this point.

“This is not something that’s easy for anybody, you’re talking about people and you’re talking about their livelihood,” he said. “That is traumatic, you have to adjust a lifestyle sometimes and you have to plan for it. We got the best teachers in the world, but we got to keep this district afloat.”

•THE FAIRNESS ISSUE

Teachers have also voiced discontent with the administration over the fairness of their proposal considering certain administrators have seen their wages increase up to 10 percent.

“I don’t believe there’s anyone that really wants to lose eight percent in two years when we can put it factually into the equation that administrations salaries have increased,” Gehoski said. “On another note too, if it gets to the point where we need to give, we’re willing to give, but we want everyone across the board to be giving.”

Verlinde denies this, saying that while certain administrators have been moved and promoted, no one has had their wages increased.

“We have some administrators who have gotten promotions, they take on more duties, work more days, they get paid more,” Verlinde said.

Both Verlinde and Cline also outlined some of the cuts administrators had been subject to in recent years, including paying for insurance and losing stipends for the cost of cell phone and mileage. On top of this, the number of administrators over the past decade has been cut by 40 percent, though they have also hired managers to take on responsibilities.

“We have cut millions and millions and millions of dollars over the past few years from every area of the district,” Cline said. “Honestly, I would say that we probably waited until the end, or when there’s not that much left to be cut, to go to the teachers to ask for the concessions.”

•MCEA’S AND FACT FINDER’S PROPOSAL

The union has presented their own proposal as an alternative to MPS’s. It too will see teachers make concessions, but to a lesser degree.

“I’m looking at the fact that every proposal that the MCEA has put on the board is concessionary, that means that we are not benefitting from any of it.” Gehoski said. “This means that overall, the contract we’re proposing has us losing.”

Their proposal would see temporary reductions for the next two years and the introduction of three optional furlough days, where teachers work for free for a day and lose approximately 1.5 percent of their pay in total.

They also offered to pay between 1.75 to 3 percent for health insurance, though they rejected the idea of increasing class sizes and the Grosse Pointe formula, instead putting forward a formula based on revenue.

In late 2011, both MPS and MCEA separately filed for fact finding. This is when an independent organization comes in to review the situation and make a non-binding recommendation. Kathleen Opperwall of the Michigan Employment Relations Commission Fact Finder conducted this review, and wrote a 13 page report that is available on the MPS website. In it, she advocated for teachers’ wages to be reduced two percent going forward and the introduction of furlough days. She sided with the MCEA concerning health care coverage, rejected a formula and stated only sixth grade classes needed to be increased.

•WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

As of now, negotiations are still under way. The final decision belongs to the Board of Education, but a compromise needs to be made first.

“It’s what our system is founded on, you get two sides together, bargain in good faith, it may take a while, there may be frustrations, but you just keep working at it until you find a solution,” Verlinde said. “Bottom line is we all want the quality of education in our schools that we’ve always had.”

This is something that both sides agree on.

“The MCEA is always willing to and looking to do its part in helping, we don’t want the district to go broke. That affects students, and we don’t want that,” Gehoski said. “No matter what happens with contract negotiations, we will always be doing our job to the best of our ability.”

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