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November 19, 2013

District, teachers clash on labor contract

By Terry Oparka
C & G Staff Writer

Troy School District parents and teachers packed the Athens High School auditorium for the Board of Education meeting Nov. 12 to voice frustration about the failure of both sides to reach an agreement on the Troy Education Association labor agreement.

Attendees held up a banner that said “We support our teachers, reinstate steps” and sported 300 parents’ signatures.

The labor agreement expired June 30, so teachers are paid the same salary as they were under the previous contract. Both sides have worked toward an agreement since March, and have worked with a state-appointed mediator since the end of May.

The sticking point remains the step pay increases for teachers with less than 10 years seniority, which Troy Education Association President Tony Lucchi said affects 600 of the 769 teachers in the district.

In 2011, the TEA agreed to concessions that included an 11 percent contribution for health care and the freeze on step increase raises, which saved the district more than $10 million throughout two years.

“It’s disheartening and demoralizing when you don’t feel valued,” said Wattles Elementary School Reading Recovery teacher Joni Gabriel. “When will the freeze thaw?”

She was one of 31 people who spoke during the meeting.

“The morale in the buildings is so low,” said Deann Quilliams, counselor at Troy High School.

“I supported the bond,” said parent Darrin Millar. “The bond was passed because of the connection with teachers.”

Shanna Frendt, a teacher at Troy High School, said the cost savings of retirements can cover the cost of the step increases.

“The sky is not falling,” said Lucchi. “The reality is far from dire as the Troy School District business office would have you believe. Steps don’t create compounding costs.”

Kerry Birmingham, community and media relations director for the Troy School District, said the cost to provide step increases for each teacher eligible is $2.4 million each year. In the spring, 43 teachers retired, but the usual number of teachers retiring each year is closer to 12, Birmingham said.

In June, the District Board of Education approved a $132 million budget, based on a student count of 12,440 and a fund balance of $23 million, which represents about 16 percent of the general fund.

Birmingham said district auditors Plante & Moran recommend a 15 percent fund balance.

Jasen Witt, assistant superintendent of human resources for the Troy School District, said the district has presented four options to the TEA. One proposal would provide teachers who are on steps 1-10 with a total of $7,300 in new bonuses over two years: $4,500 the first year and $2,800 the second year. A second option was that all teachers, including those not on the steps, would receive $1,000 in bonuses in 2013-14 and $1,100 for 2014-15.

Another option would provide step increases to teachers who receive passing performance evaluations if the Troy School District fund balance is $21 million or greater after the 2013-14 audit. Another proposal would slate 42 percent of any increase in the state per-pupil allowance to the TEA, after district payroll tax costs for Social Security, Medicare and retirement costs were subtracted. 
 
All four options are listed on the school district website, www.troy.k12.mi.us.

The Troy School District team is fully prepared to bargain, Witt said.

Lucchi described the bonuses offered to the teachers under the current proposals as “arbitrary,” based on evaluations, and said district officials could manipulate “how much and when.” 

He noted that Troy School District now wants to roll money saved from teachers’ retirements, which, in the past, was used to offset step increases into a different cost center.

“We do not allot money saved from retirements to a different cost center,” Birmingham said. “We only have one general fund. All costs and revenue are accounted for in the same general fund.

“Our district’s budgeting process creates a fiscal plan to maintain excellent programs and services for our students and to fairly compensate our excellent staff within our resources,” Birmingham said via email.  “We consider all revenue increases and decreases, and all expenditure increases and decreases. The number of retirements and their replacement costs are fully considered. This has been our budgeting process for many years.”

Board of Education President Nancy Phillipart said the board has great respect for teachers. “This is an economic issue,” she said. “Both teams are committed to a fair solution. We do have common ground. We want to compensate teachers in a fair and reasonable way. Our long-term excellence is driven by long-term planning to make sure we can sustain and afford the commitments we make today. We are committed to providing sustainable pay increases.”

Troy School District Superintendent Barbara Fowler explained that money raised from the recent bond issue can not be used for compensation.

The TEA has filed for fact-finding, which could take between six months to a year; however, district officials and the TEA are free to negotiate during that process.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Terry Oparka at toparka@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1054.