Board votes to impose teachers contract

ALPENA – The Alpena Public Schools Board of Education approved to impose a two-year contract on members of the Alpena Education Association at a special meeting Wednesday morning.

The contract will have the same net impact as a 10 percent cut spread over two full school years. Starting May 2, teachers will see a 16.71 percent wage cut, making up for the majority of this school year while teachers were paid their normal salaries that were between $35,000 and $65,000, and the cut will continue through the 2014-15 school year.

“We still don’t officially have a contract, and will have to continue negotiations,” Superintendent Brent Holcomb said. “I like our teachers. They are awesome individuals and do great things for our kids. This isn’t a statement about the value of our teachers, it’s more a statement about the economics of our state, the priorities of our governor and our state leaders.

“This is not an indictment of the value of teachers from a local district’s perspective, this is terrible, and I don’t think anybody at the board level or administrative level feels good about this. The reality is at the state level the govenor and our state leaders have prioritized education differently, and we took a $500 per kid reduction in state aid. That’s $2 million to our budget and we can’t recover.”

In a press release, the AEA stated it was disappointed by the board’s actions.

“The board has made no attempt to make any other change than reduce employee wages to subsidize its shrinking budget,” Deb Larson, MEA UniServ director, said. “We agree there is a funding problem created by a reduction in state funding to public schools and continuing declining enrollment in the school district. The board, however, has not ‘right-sized’ the district to address this reality.”

According to a press release provided by APS, the consideration to impose a contract came after months of attempts to reach an agreement with the AEA. The board and AEA met often for negotiations, and after many hours of bargaining, a tentative agreement that was rejected, and a state fact finder review, both parties ended up at a juncture.

The foundation of the problem is not in dispute and both parties acknowledge the $2.8 million deficit, realize that it stems from lack of state support for Michigan schools, and recognize school districts must operate in the black or face state intervention. The difference is the views on staff cuts verses wage cuts.

“Even from the union’s perspective, we’re not that far apart; we agree on the number, Holcomb said. “Our opinion is it needs to all come democratically across the board from everybody, and the union’s position is they will take a little bit, and eliminate a bunch of jobs. The minute I eliminate jobs, it impacts the programs and the kids, and the board has said we’re not going to do that because we’ll never get it back. We have that issue with buses, we have that issue with computers, and we’re having that issue with books. We are moving forward as best we can.”

The union has repeatedly proposed cutting teaching positions instead of wages, which was discussed with the board but rejected on the basis that it would hurt the district’s program, raise student-teacher ratios and greatly affect the quality of education for students.

“We’ve made all the decisions based on cuts, and there are no more easy cuts left,” Holcomb said. “We are committed as a district to not impact programming and class size any more than we have to. The association says cut more jobs, and our position is that we’re not going to do that because we value the programs and we value class size as being important.”

The most recent proposal by the AEA suggested a 5.5 percent pay cut along with cutting 10 teaching positions at the high school. The board believes significantly reducing any staffing area of a school district ultimately impacts the quality of the district itself.

“I’ve heard the comment that we’re harming the economy of Alpena by $2 million, but that $2 million went two years ago when we took the state aid cut,” Holcomb said. “The only reason we’ve been able to sustain it is because we’ve been spending it out of savings, and that savings isn’t there anymore. The reality is that 90 percent of our budget has shifted to personnel cost, and it should be way less than 90 percent.”

A wage cut already is in effect for Alpena Public Schools’ other 280 employees, union and non-union, who took a 10 percent reduction in either July or September. That cut extends through 2014-15, and other bargaining units in the district agreed to the cuts such as cooks and custodians, aides and paraprofessionals, secretaries, bus drivers, and all other staff including administrators, administrative support and grant-supported employees.

The board admits asking staff to provide the same excellent service for less pay is not a good alternative, but in the long view it believes it may do more to maintain quality and hold the district together than significantly cutting staff and slicing educational programs.

“My fear is it is going to harm Alpena Public Schools in a way that ultimately it will hurt kids, which in the end could hurt employees,” Holcomb said. “We’re all in this together.”

If the district does not reduce its deficit, the state has authority to intervine. Fourty-six Michigan school districts currently are in deficit and more are projected to join the list this summer, according to the APS press release.

The board will continue to negotiate with the AEA until the parties agree on a new contract, and until then the wage reduction will continue through the 2015 school year.

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