MARQUETTE - In the single largest public show of solidarity to date, members of the Marquette Area Education Association marched with their supporters into the Marquette school board's meeting Monday night, clad in black, holding "Support Marquette Teachers" signs and led by a bagpiper.
More than 25 people spoke during public comment at the meeting, most of whom were teachers disillusioned by the length of time contract negotiations between the board and the union have dragged on.
The teachers have been working without a contract for months. Many called the current situation ugly, sad and unfortunate.
Grace Feliz, whose mother is a third-grade teacher at Cherry Creek Elementary School, tears up as she asks the Marquette Area Public Schools Board of Education to show they respect teachers by offering them a fair contract. (Journal photo by Jackie Stark)
Marquette teachers held a rally Monday afternoon to raise awareness about their lack of a contract with the school district. The rally started at the corner of Wright Street and Lincoln Avenue, then it continued as the teachers walked to Marquette Senior High School and into the board of education meeting. (Journal photo by Jackie Stark)
"We all want the same thing, but we're at two different poles" said Superior Hills Elementary Schools first-grade teacher Vicki Flanigan.
Flanigan, and many other teachers, said they didn't understand why Marquette couldn't finalize a contract after months of negotiations when other districts in the county had taken days - and others hours - to do so.
Several teachers talked about their wages, which have remained stagnant or drastically declined.
Sandy Knoll Elementary School special education teacher Heidi Dougan said she had lost $7,000 from last year to this one.
"I'm back to my starting wage and it makes me sick to my stomach," said Dougan, a 7-year veteran in the MAPS district. "I just plead with you, I am looking at other districts ... I don't want to leave here, and I have a whole lot to offer, so don't make me do that. Let's take care of this and move on."
Former MAPS student teacher Lisa McCarthy said the district would have a hard time attracting new teachers without finalizing a contract.
"We're not a destination," McCarthy said, citing the district's new tagline. "We're a destination to stay away from right now, and that's sad because Marquette is great."
McCarthy said she was looking for work outside the district.
Several teachers expressed hope that a mediation session scheduled for 4 p.m. today would result in an agreement between the two parties.
The teachers also held a rally at the corner of Wright Street and Lincoln Avenue prior to the meeting in an effort to keep the public aware of its contract situation.
Each speaker at the rally had to contend with the honking of horns as passersby beeped to show their support.
Rick Trainor, the secretary and treasurer of the Michigan Education Association, spoke during the rally and the board meeting, rallying against a small number of legislators he said had hijacked the Republican party.
While the rally was meant to help keep the teachers' lack of a contract in the public eye, it also had the effect of boosting the spirit of some teachers as they heard and felt the community's support.
Marquette Alternative High School teacher Cindy DePetro said it has been a tough year for teachers in the district, all of whom are forced to leave their contract worries at the door and continue to educate kids.
"We need to know that we're valued in the community, and the honks and the turnout really help," DePetro said.
Marquette Senior High School teacher Lisa Jahnke said it doesn't reflect well on Marquette County's largest school district in terms of student population to not have a contract with its teachers.
"It is a black mark on a community of this size not to have a contract," Jahnke said.
Jenna Parsons and Lauren Marlowe, both 2013 MSHS graduates, were at the rally to support family members in the union. They said it was great to see such a large turnout.
"I think it's awesome," Parsons said. "Everyone came out to support each other."
Don Barr, co-president of the Marquette Teacher's Union, said he's hoping the contract situation can be resolved at today's negotiating session.
"Let's just get this thing done," Barr said while addressing the school board. "Let's pull out the Starbucks, we'll lock ourselves in the board room tomorrow and we're not leaving until it's done."
Board Vice President Mike Kohler and Trustees Scott Brogan and Laura Songer did not attend the meeting.