MARQUETTE - The Marquette Area Education Association will be without its co-leaders next school year after both teachers made the decision to resign from the profession.
"In the end, it's not that tough of a decision," said Nathan Larson, who headed the teachers union with fellow Bothwell Middle School teacher Don Barr. "It's tough to leave the kids. It's tough to leave the parents. It's super hard to leave my fellow staff members, but it's not hard to leave this leadership, my goodness."
Barr, 28, said the pair began considering resigning from teaching at the beginning of the calendar year, after negotiations appeared to be headed nowhere between the union and the Marquette school district.
The teachers worked all of the previous school year without a current agreement.
Negotiations are still ongoing.
"I work 75 hours a week in my classroom and it doesn't bother me one bit, but at the end of the day, I need to be able to pay my bills and advance," Barr said.
There have been a few sticking points between both sides, but one issue continues to rise to the surface: steps.
Steps are pay increases based on years of service. The district has not offered contracts that include steps. The teachers say they will not take a contract that doesn't include them.
Marquette Area Public Schools Superintendent Bill Saunders said he was sorry to see both Barr and Larson leave.
"I hired both those guys. I think they were extremely solid teachers in the classroom. I value what they've given to our students over the last couple years," Saunders said. "It's sad to see people choose other professions, but at the same time there are a lot of really highly qualified, really good teachers out there that I hope would step in and fill that role."
MAPS Board of Education President Rich Rossway expressed a similar sentiment in an email message.
"Mr. Larson and Mr. Barr are excellent and effective teachers and will certainly be missed at MAPS. I respect their decision and understand that many people make career changes during the course of their lifetime," Rossway said. "MAPS will continue to pay our teachers at a salary that is highly competitive. We are also fortunate to have a fine educational institution in Northern Michigan University that continually provides MAPS with energetic and educated graduates anxious to begin their teaching career at MAPS."
Both Barr and Larson, 26, attributed the decision to leave teaching, after working as teachers for only two years each, to a murky financial future not just in Marquette but in the entire state of Michigan.
"There's a state epidemic with teacher attrition rates," Barr said. "I think, for the first time, that's becoming a local thing."
According to a 2011 Profile of Teachers report written by the National Center for Education, one third of all public school teachers do not expect to be teaching in K-12 schools five years from now.
The National Commission on Teaching and America's Future has said nearly 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years. And according to the IES National Center for Education Statistics, teachers with 10 or fewer years of experience constitute more than 52 percent of the nation's teaching force.
The district has said repeatedly that there is not enough money to provide steps to teachers.
"This isn't really an isolated Marquette issue nor is it a steps issue," Saunders said. "This is a state funding issue."
However, the teachers have said the general fund balance is healthy, that the district is in good financial condition and it should be able to offer teachers more money.
Barr said his decision was influenced by what he said was a financially healthy district that appeared unwilling to pay steps. He said if current trends continue, the teaching profession would be a scary place for young people just starting out.
"You use the step system to get yourself to a reasonable salary and you can afford to make ends meet, but if that doesn't happen, if we have money now and we can't afford to pay steps, what's going to happen when we don't?" Barr said. "I'm at the beginning of my career and I can't afford to find out what's going to happen. I just can't."
Toni Landick, a guidance counselor at Bothwell and a member of the union's crisis committee said young teachers should be a paid a wage that ensures they can pay all their bills on their own.
"To think that you go to school to become a teacher, you incur all that debt and you cannot make it unless there's somebody else contributing to your life, that seems wrong," Landick said.
Both men are planning to attend Northern Michigan University in the fall, where they will pursue degrees in computer science.