MARQUETTE - With Marquette teachers fighting to keep step and lane salary increases, contract negotiations remain at an impasse between the teachers' union and Marquette Area Public Schools.
Representatives from both parties met with a state mediator Tuesday afternoon to work at resolving some of their differences.
For the district, MAPS Superintendent Bill Saunders said it's a simple matter of economics - to pay teachers step increases would mean significant cuts elsewhere - whether to other school programs or by laying off teachers or increasing class sizes. He said in the past few years, the district has already had to make cuts as both student enrollment in the district and state funding per pupil have declined.
"We're trying to really find that happy medium where, yes, we can pay the teachers and at the same time we don't have to have cuts that coincide with that in order to make that happen," Saunders said. "We're trying to move forward like anybody else would and live off a balanced budget and not deficit spend."
Steps are pay increases to teachers - in the case of Marquette, between 3 percent and 5 percent - based on the number of years they've worked for the district, while lanes are paid based on the teacher's level of education.
But Stu Skauge, the Michigan Education Association's UniServe director for Marquette and Alger counties, said that the district's claims of a tight financial situation are simply not true.
"We have their audits that they submitted to the state - they have a healthy fund balance," Skauge said. "The employees are actually costing them less now than they were in previous years, because they had so many of the higher paid older people retire, and they've hired a lot of new people. And five of the new teachers they hired this year, they hired them at part time ... So this gloom and doom about the money is just not accurate."
According to publicly available financial data on the district's website, its general fund balance in 2014 to date is slightly more than $6 million and its revenues are greater than its expenditures by roughly $1.3 million.
Results of the district's 2013 audit show that its expenses were about $280,000 less than its revenues, with a general fund balance of almost $4.8 million.
On a scale from zero to 10, with a score of 10 denoting an extremely high risk financial situation, MAPS received an indicator score of zero for that year. The 2014 budget and year-to-date actuals both received a score of one and the 2015 forecast was scored at two.
Marquette teachers have been working for more than 235 days without a contract. The MAEA last signed a one-year agreement for the 2012-2013 school year in October - four months after its expiration at the end of June.
A recent state law - Michigan Public Act 54 of 2011- states when a union contract for government employees, such as public schools teachers, has expired, employees will not be paid for seniority-based pay increases like steps. It also prohibits teachers from being paid retroactively for steps once an agreement has been reached. The law states further that any increase to the cost of teachers' health benefits after their union contract has expired must be paid for by the teachers.
Skauge said that law, and another state law passed in 2011 which places a cap on the amount of money that a public entity can contribute to its employees' health insurance, gives school districts a huge advantage while increasingly pinching teachers' salaries.
"The school districts have really got the advantage in negotiations, because they're just sitting there stalling, and we figure they're saving about $10,000 a week by not paying the money the people already have coming," he said. "It has nothing to do with negotiating a raise. And the Marquette teachers have not had a raise, well this is the fourth year that they've taken a 0 percent raise and the only thing they've gotten is their step increase."
Saunders said that despite working without a contract, teachers were illegally paid their steps throughout the 2012-2013 school year.
"It kind of put us in violation of state law, and that was a big issue, but yes, MAPS teachers have always been paid a step increase," he said.
Skauge said not only did the district fail to reach out to negotiate with the union until after its contract had expired, but it waited until after the district's millage election in August as well.
"The contract expired June 30 and they wouldn't even meet with us until after the millage election. So they're just dragging their feet right through," Skauge said. "You figure we had a mediation meeting (Monday) night ... now, the last meeting with the mediator took place Oct. 30. So they're certainly not bargaining in good faith."
The three-year contract the district is currently proposing would offer teachers no step increases, a 1 percent non-base-pay raise for the 2013-2014 school year - meaning the raise would be effective only this year - and 2 percent pay schedule increases each of the next two years after that, which would be added to teachers' base pay.
The union is proposing 1 percent pay schedule increases for each of the three years as well as steps and lanes.
Saunders said even if the current proposed state funding increase of $111 per pupil is approved - which would mean a 1.6 percent increase, or about $340,000 to the district - the school's funding levels would still be below those of seven or eight years ago. He said that the proposed increase wouldn't cover the cost of paying teachers' steps.
"If I looked at a step - just a step alone - it averages 3 percent for that entire union. So if you bring in 1.6 percent and you're paying out 3 percent, you're not covering your increase," he said. "The only reason you wouldn't be deficit spending is if your enrollment goes up. Well, our enrollment hasn't been going up. So, you're going to end up deficit spending in order to meet that need. And that's just focused on salaries. What about district increases to, say, diesel fuel, or propane, or (Marquette Board of Light and Power) rates going up 8 percent? We still have to pay all those other bills."
Nathan Larson, co-president of the MAEA, said teachers continue to suffer from lower pay and increased costs for insurance and benefits, despite having made significant compromises in past negotiations. He said teachers want the community's support.
"For some (teachers), their highest pay check was over 10 years ago," Larson said. "They've been watching their pay go down and down even with step increases, etc. We've had teachers that changed lanes because they got a master's degree, and in their W-2 the next year they're still making less money.
"Teachers are hurting. It's tough. The district says they want to give us raises, etc. But we just don't see it. We don't see an increase in net pay."
Saunders said: "I know this is starting to go a little wild in the media, and like I said (at Monday's school board meeting), I as much as anyone appreciates our teachers, I appreciate what they do. We want to be able to compensate our teachers for the job they do. They're an integral part of everything."
Representatives from both sides will meet again with a state mediator March 11.