Teachers’ HQ set up to answer public’s questions

ALPENA Faced with looming pay cuts, area teachers are going all out to educate parents and decision-makers about ways to put the school district on better financial footing.

“We want a healthy district long term,” said Alpena Education Association President Erin Kieliszewski, who teaches at Besser Elementary School. “We want to see Alpena thrive. But the structure as it presents itself now isn’t working.”

After several years of declining enrollment and state funding cuts, the Alpena School District Board of Education sought a 10 percent pay cut for teachers during contract negotiation last summer.

The district’s 197 professional educators, who are unionized, have been working without a contract since Aug. 31, 2013, and are represented by the AEA.

Kieliszewski and teachers Laura Dubey and Greg Gehrke said their issue isn’t about pay, which if cut would puts them back at 2002 pay levels.

“One of our proposals would have saved the school district $2.8 million, but the board voted it down,” said Gehrke, a math teacher.

Details of their offer included a 5.5 percent pay cut, a wage freeze for three years, a staff reduction of 10 employees, and a return to a semester schedule, instead of a trimester.

“We don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, we just want to do our job,” Dubey said. “But they haven’t bargained. So we have to go out beyond out comfort level and inform the community.”

The group selected the highly visible storefront on the corner, but today will be changing the name from crisis to information headquarters. They will hold AEA meetings at the office, be available after school to answer questions from the public and seek support for their efforts.

“It’s very visible, and one of our biggest problems is making the public aware,” Gehrke said.

Meanwhile, the group anticipates the school district could vote for an imposition some time next week, putting into place the last offer they made to teachers, he said.

Gehrke said he and others are concerned that once the contract is signed, the pay cut could be as high as 17 percent for two years, to make up for the lack of a cut at the start of the school year in 2013.

Meanwhile, teachers in the district worry about how they will pay mortgages and auto loans and save up money to keep their children in college, they said. The headquarters also will start a food bank for teachers, some of whom hold down second jobs to make ends meet.

“The bottom line is that teachers should be concentrating on students in the classroom,” Kieliszewski said. “This is a distraction that is unsettling.”

Betsy Lehndorff can be reached via email at blehndorff@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5693. Follow Betsy on Twitter @bl_alpenanews.