MARQUETTE - School may be officially out for the summer today, but Marquette teachers and the school board will continue to work carving out a contract both sides can agree on.
Both the Marquette Area Public Schools Board of Education and the Marquette Area Education Association, which represents teachers in the Marquette district, have been negotiating throughout the school year, unable to find common ground on issues like wages, benefits and class size.
The last signed agreement between the two expired June 30, 2013.
At times, it seemed little love had been lost between the two parties as negotiatons dragged on, but both sides say they remain hopeful a settlement will be reached soon.
Currently, the groups are working with a state mediator, which they've been doing since October.
If either side felt the mediation sessions were going nowhere, they could petition to begin the next stage in the negotiation process, a fact-finding hearing conducted by the Michigan Employment Relations Commission.
The commission would then appoint a third-party fact finder to conduct a hearing relating to all facts in dispute, according to guidelines on the Licensing and Regulatory Affairs website.
MERC is a division of LARA.
The guidelines go on to say the fact-finding hearing would be conducted in public, unless otherwise directed by the fact finder, with the ultimate purpose of allowing both parties to present facts and witnesses in support of their positions.
At the end of the process, the fact finder issues written recommendations on the contract provisions in dispute, though the recommendations are not binding and neither party is obligated to follow them.
Following fact finding, the parties continue to negotiate until they reach an agreement, or until one or both sides declare they are at an impasse.
At that point, the school district can impose conditions of employment on the union.
Both sides in the contract dispute have said they do not want to petition for the fact-finding process to begin.
Michigan Education Association UniServe Director for Marquette and Alger counties Stu Skauge said fact-finding is a virtually toothless step in the negotiations process.
"I don't know that there's any merit to it since it's not binding," Skauge said. "School boards usually ignore the findings if the fact-finder comes out in favor of the union, so it really doesn't do us much good.
"Mediation is still ongoing," he added. "I don't see it moving in that direction. We're still meeting and we're still negotiating. Hopefully we will reach an agreement soon."
MAPS Superintendent Bill Saunders expressed a similar hope, saying he wanted to reach an agreement without having it come to fact finding.
"Right now we're working hard as we ever have to come up with a deal. I think we're up to 11 or 12 mediation sessions," Saunders said. "If we were looking to go that route, we probably would have done that after the first or second mediation session. We wouldn't have sat there. And, to me, the intent is pretty clear that we're looking to settle a contract."
The two sides are currently scheduling their next mediation session.