ISHPEMING - Angry over negotiations and a lack of a contract after their old agreement expired in August, teachers from the NICE Community Schools packed the board of education meeting Monday to voice their concerns.
"My school family of teachers at Westwood is discouraged," said Westwood High School teacher B.G. Bradley. "We're not discouraged by kids. What kids do in a classroom, good or bad, goes with the territory ... Kids and subject matter are our jobs, our vocations. Nobody goes into teaching because the pay is high ... Twice the pay wouldn't be enough compensation for the discouragement and frustration we're feeling now."
The NICE board and the NICE Teachers Association have been in contract negotiations since June and have had two sessions with a state mediator. While the board said it is attempting to keep the district in a solid financial footing, teachers said they feel they are being asked to make concessions they cannot afford. As negotiations are ongoing, neither side is releasing details of the various contract proposals.
"The morale is at an all-time low," said Jill Sladek, president of the NTA. "They're asking us to do our jobs with no supplies, no budget. They're asking us to pay such a high fee for our insurance that for young teachers, it's going to put them in the poor house."
In addition, teachers pointed out that they routinely spend time at work before and after school hours and spend their own money to purchase classroom supplies that the district is unable to afford.
Teachers also pointed to an increased number of students in the district this year and the "best practices" funding the district will be receiving thanks to meeting certain state requirements, arguing that enough money is available to not require the concessions.
Board members and administrators, however, said they cannot count on that funding, particularly the best practices funding, to be there in future years.
"One of the things that concerns me a little bit about some of the comments shared here tonight is they start with the presumption that the board is against you. That troubles me deeply ... We view you as you view us - our friends, our neighbors, our family," said board President Brett French. "I think several alluded to it very well when you suggested that a lot of what we're struggling with today is being handed to us by Lansing ... These are things that are taking place in Lansing and are being shipped north.
"We realize there are fundamental differences of opinion that pertain to the contract that we're currently trying to negotiate. We still, like you, remain very hopeful that we can reach an agreement and move forward," French said.
French said the district's administrative group and support staff union have already made large concessions in their negotiated contracts.
A number of teachers from surrounding districts, including the Ishpeming Public Schools and the Negaunee Public Schools, also attended the meeting, speaking in support of the NTA and settling a contract.
Their presence at the meeting, however, seemed to uncover increased tension with the board as Mark Churchill, negotiator for the Negaunee Education Association, said he felt the NICE board was using "bullying" tactics against its teachers.
As French reiterated his view that teachers and the board were partners in the education system, Stu Skauge, UniServ director for the Michigan Education Association, responded, "You know what, Brett, your powerplay was right there, with that bullsh- - - speech you just made."
The comment drew applause from the audience and caused the board to put examination of its public comment policy on its agenda for next month.
Superintendent Michael Haynes said the board would continue to negotiate "in good faith" with the union to reach a settlement.
"Our goal is to treat everyone fairly, but our primary goal is to ensure we have a quality education system," Haynes said.
Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401.