MARQUETTE - Still operating without a contract, Marquette Area Public Schools teachers have entered into mediation with the district's administration to try and reach an agreement.
"The biggest issues that still remain deal with class size, wages and insurance benefits," said Stu Skauge, UniServe director for the Michigan Education Association in Marquette and Alger counties.
The first session, conducted by the state's Upper Peninsula mediator Ed Eppert, was held Oct. 30 on the heels of the two parties signing a contract for the 2012-2013 school year Oct. 25, roughly three months after the agreement expired.
Many teachers, who are represented by the Marquette Area Education Association, have spoken out during school board meetings about the high cost of health insurance, following thew board offering teachers a hard-cap policy rather than the 80/20 policy it had chosen in years past.
The hard-cap policy ensures the district does not pay more than a certain dollar amount for health insurance premiums for its employees, who must then pick up the rest of the cost.
"They took action last June, which we feel was illegal, before we even started bargaining," Skauge said. "The board took action to say there was going to be a cap on the insurance."
A number of teachers have told the board the cap is wreaking havoc on their take-home pay, with some saying they are forced to work two and even three jobs to make ends meet.
Skauge said a new Marquette teacher's starting salary is about $31,000, but actual take-home pay is roughly $17,000.
Skauge said the union takes issue with a lack of base salary pay raises and is also frustrated with the late start in negotiations.
The district opted to hold off on negotiating contracts until it could find a replacement for outgoing Superintendent Deb Veiht, who became superintendent of the Marquette-Alger Regional Educational Services Agency in July.
Bill Saunders, interim superintendent at MAPS, declined to comment on current negotiations, saying the teachers and the administration agreed not to "negotiate through the media."
"We're still intending on holding up that end of the agreement that we originally had," Saunders said.
The district is also still negotiating with Marquette Educational Support Personnel Association Unit I, which represents custodial, food service and transportation personnel.
The board is scheduled to go into closed session during its regular meeting Monday night to discuss union negotiations.
The meeting is at at 5:30 p.m in the Marquette Senior High School Library.
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.