Rochester teacher contract remains elusive

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published February 12, 2014

Negotiations remain at a standstill between more than 900 teachers in the Rochester Education Association and the Rochester Community Schools, despite months of discussion. 

REA President Doug Hill said negotiating teams representing the union and the school district have been meeting regularly since May. At press time, he said, they had met 27 times.

The 947 teachers in the union have been without a new contract since Aug. 15, which means wage and benefit freezes for all union members who would be eligible for increases until a new agreement is reached, per Michigan’s Public Act 54 of 2011.

Public school teachers in Michigan and elsewhere have historically enjoyed two boosts to their pay — an increase for gaining a year of experience, described as moving up a “step,” and a raise if they advanced their education through graduate degrees or credits, described as moving over a “lane.”

“For our group, this year, there have been no salary increases at all (due to PA 54). … Last time I checked, we have about 45 or 46 folks who earned a degree advancement in the last year that have not been able to move up in the salary spectrum there either,” Hill said.

Under PA 54, union members who receive health, dental, vision, prescription and other insurance benefits also bear any increased cost of maintaining benefits, which RCS has the authority of deducting from their payroll, until a new agreement is negotiated.

“Because our health care year goes from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, with the end of that health care plan year, there was a rate increase, and that full rate increase is now being born by the employees of the district. That was about a 9 percent — maybe slightly more than 9 percent — increase in health care. So, for most folks, that’s an additional deduction that’s somewhere between $50 and $100 per paycheck, depending upon if they are a single subscriber, a two-person subscriber or a family subscriber to the health care plan,” Hill said.

Union members picketed outside the district’s administration building before the Feb. 10 Board of Education meeting to raise public awareness about their lack of a contract, Hill said.

During the meeting, Board of Education President Lisa Nowak said the board continues to receive inquiries regarding the status of negotiations.

“The two parties continue to meet, and the negotiations are progressing,” she said.

The major contract issues for Rochester teachers, according to Hill, are salary and benefits. During public comment, 14 REA members voiced their concerns to the board.

Jen Weller, a kindergarten teacher at University Hills, said she has spent the last seven years at the elementary school setting a positive foundation for her young students as they start their schooling career.

“Rochester Community Schools is a premier district, and the reason why is because of our dynamic and dedicated staff at each building,” she said during the meeting. “We’re asking you to respect and recognize our dedication to our students by working toward a fair and equitable contract.”

Matthew Kerstein, a fifth-grade teacher at McGregor Elementary and also a district graduate, said he wonders if the school board has stopped to consider the real wealth of Rochester Community Schools — its teachers.

“It is time for the school board to honor the experience of the teachers in this district by providing a contract with reasonable pay step increases. Pay step increases are how a teacher is rewarded for their growth as a professional. We don’t work for an auto company, so we’re not going to get a bonus this year. Our sales didn’t increase. We are working our hearts out for this community and deserve to be respectfully honored for our efforts,” he said.

Morale is at an all-time low, according to Kerstein, who said a week doesn’t pass in which he doesn’t hear an exceptional teacher question his or her future in the profession.

“It is, quite frankly, embarrassing we do not have a contract. We are not staying competitive with other districts, which honor experience. New, talented teachers are going to choose other districts over ours. Moreover, current employees are going to leave — either the district or the profession entirely. There are many teachers in my school who grew up in this community who express their own doubts about raising their own children here. … It is sad when your teachers won’t take their own children to our schools,” he told the board. “Keep the real wealth in Rochester Schools — its people. I strongly urge you to pass a contract which honors and provides for its teachers.”

While reading a statement from the school board on the matter, Nowak said the board values “the dedication and the hard work” of the teachers in the district.

“We are confident that both parties are working diligently to come to a mutual labor agreement that aligns expenses with revenues and preserves educational opportunities for all our students,” she said.

A district spokesperson declined to provide further comment on the matter.

At press time, the next bargaining meeting had not been scheduled due to scheduling conflicts from both parties, but Hill said the teams are working to find a date that works.

“We don’t have one on the books, but we’re trying to get something in place (in the next two weeks),” he said.