MARQUETTE - Members of the Marquette teachers union made their position known Monday night on the lack of a contract for the current school year - no steps mean no contract.
"To think that you're going to attack the system that was established many, many years ago, probably in the '60s, of paying teachers on steps for experience and on lanes for education is ridiculous and there is no way that you're ever going to settle a contract in this district without those steps," Stu Skauge, Michigan Education Association UniServe director for Marquette and Alger counties, said while addressing the Marquette school board at its meeting Monday.
Steps are pay increases based on the number of years served in the district. Lanes are pay increases based on the education level of the person.
Nancy Usitalo, a third-grade teacher at Sandy Knoll Elementary School, addresses the Marquette Area Public Schools Board of Education during its regular meeting Monday night. With teachers dressed all in black in a display of solidarity, Usitalo asked the board to settle the contract dispute ongoing between the Marquette Education Association, which represents Marquette teachers, and the district. (Journal photo by Jackie Stark)
Without enough chairs for everyone, people were scattered across the floor of the Marquette Senior High School Library, seated anywhere they found a comfortable place. Many were dressed all in black as a show of solidarity.
The teachers in the Marquette Area Education Association have been working more than 235 days without a signed contract. The association's last contract was signed in October, four months after its actual expiration on June 30.
The union held a "walk-in/walk-out" last week, with teachers arriving at and leaving work at the times specified in their previous contract. Union officials said they were hoping to raise awareness among the community about the lack of a contract.
The MAEA is currently the only bargaining unit in the Marquette school district to not have a contract.
At the beginning of the meeting, Marquette Area Public Schools Superintendent Bill Saunders showed the board what a contract option offered by the district would look like financially, and what he said was a similar option proposed by the union. In the administration's proposal, two 2 percent base salary raises are offered with no step increase, as well as one 1 percent non-base salary raise. In what Saunders said was similar to one of the union's proposals, one step is given along with three base-salary increases of 1 percent.
In each case, numbers provided by the district show the total cost higher in the option proposed by the union.
Some people, such as Danielle Dumais, co-president of the Iron Mountain Education Association, had strong words for the district.
"I implore you, especially if you have a dime left in your account, to settle this contract," Dumais said. "Because I think it would be a more effective use of our time if we all pulled together and started saying no to Lansing. We're not going to let you do this to our small communities. If you want to keep cutting us then you're just going to have to watch us go in the red and you're going to have to figure it out for once, because we're doing everything we can from a small Upper Peninsula community to try and stay afloat and the less we keep holding them responsible, they're just going to keep taking and keep taking and keep taking and it's time to say no."
Dumais made the 90- minute drive to Marquette with several other members of her union, all of whom have been working for nearly two years without a contract. They wore red T-shirts with "WWC" written on the front, "Here for the kids" written on the back. "WWC" stands for "working without a contract."
People addressed the board for more than an hour, all in support of the teachers and many with heartfelt messages.
But few people had more scathing things to say than those of MAEA co-president Nathan Larson, who received one of many standing ovations offered by the crowd gathered inside the library.
Larson said the board was becoming "akin to an enemy" and said the "community is starting to think you're purposely delaying negotiations."
"Your negotiating team made offers to the teachers that are shameful," Larson said. "Sure you've settled similar contracts with other units. I can't imagine why you're proud of that."
Larson said other districts were working with a fraction of Marquette's fund balance, but had found ways to fairly compensate their staff.
"Will teachers take home more money next year?" Larson said. "I signed a contract with this district with the thought that some day, I will make enough money to even start a family in this district. Doesn't that sound nice? I signed a contract that included a step system that rewarded teachers for their service, and I know some of you are really against the step system, but that's what I did."
Trustee Matthew Williams said everyone involved in the negotiations needed to be more flexible and work creatively to find the best solution.
"If you noticed, Mr. Skauge stood up and drew a big, deep line in the sand and said he would never cross it, and said this is the way we've done it forever and this is the way we're going to keep doing it," Williams said. "And that's not a way to come to a resolution."
Vice President Scott Brogan and Secretary/Treasurer Mike Kohler echoed Williams' comments.
Board President Rich Rossway took issue with a few negative comments about Saunders and his contract as well as the board being called shameful.
Rossway said the problem did not lie in the district's financial choices but was merely a symptom of poor funding from the state and a perpetual decline in enrollment.
"Losing 500 students over the last 10 years, being funded at 2007-2008 levels, it is unacceptable," Rossway said. "It's not the board. That's what the state of Michigan has done and how much they have valued public education."
Rossway said he is meeting with state Rep. John Kivela, D-Marquette, next week to discuss education funding and invited members of the union to attend the meeting.
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.