APS teachers reject contract

ALPENA – Alpena Public Schools teachers rejected a proposed contract with Alpena Public Schools during a vote on Wednesday morning. The two sides have been bargaining since May, with both sides agreeing to use a mediator to attempt to resolve lingering issues. The 10 percent wage concessions, adjustments to health insurance and prescription benefits have been accepted by the administration, district secretaries, cooks and custodians to create savings for the district.

Superintendent Brent Holcomb was disheartened by the tentative contract rejection.

“We’re disappointed,” Holcomb said. “Both sides sent teams to the table, and we bargained in good faith. This tentative agreement was reached with the help of an outside mediator, and we feel we came to a fair contract offer given the district’s financial position.”

The teachers are represented by the Michigan Education Association, and the unit is filing for fact finding with the state as the next step in addressing the bargaining issues. This will bring in an outside person to look at the negotiations and add input.

“While the teachers understand the financial crisis facing the district, our members cannot afford to accept a pay cut. They do not see the district bargaining in good faith when they continue to hire new teachers and are inflexible in considering other areas to reduce costs,” Deb Larson, the teachers chief negotiator, said. “They cannot agree to continue to reduce wages and benefits to make up for declining enrollment and the lack of adequate funding from the state.”

State funding cuts reduced $470 per student from APS’s budget in 2011-12, contributing to the deficit. The concessions of employees would help to reduce the deficit, but would bring teachers back to the salary offered 10 years ago.

“We are committed to returning to the table to negotiate a settlement that will be acceptable to our members,” Larson said. “We are open to collaborating on alternative solutions with the district to resolve this budget crisis.”

Holcomb said after a rejection such as this, you don’t start over with negotiations, but it will take more time and money for negotiations.

“We’ll continue to try to work with teachers on attempting to get a contract,” he said. “If we’re spending money on current salaries, we can’t cover any future settlements. It will take greater concessions to reach contracts later. You can’t spend money you don’t have. If we continue to operate on a deficit, at some point moving forward is going to affect the kids and the classroom.”

Holcomb has repeatedly stated his commitment to keeping quality education for APS students, including keeping staffing levels appropriate for the classroom.

“We are not going to put 40 kids in a classroom to balance the budget,” Holcomb said. “Our financial position is not going to change without concessions, and the opportunity to bargain a contract is not going to get better.”

The district’s recently approved deficit elimination plan calls for an across the board 10 percent wage reduction to bring the district out of deficit.

“We realize the new contracts other employee groups have accepted are a sacrifice, but believe it a necessary one given economic conditions facing all districts across the state,” Holcomb said. “We expect to approve the instructional assistants contract on Friday. They have already approved it, and we expect the board to approve it also.”

Despite the outcome of this vote and the ongoing negotiations with teachers, school will begin as scheduled on Tuesday.

Nicole Grulke can be reached via email at ngrulke@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5687. Follow Nicole on Twitter @ng_alpenanews.