Teachers Jordan Moon and Theresa Van Sickle, both teachers at Collins Elementary School, hold signs.

Teachers Jordan Moon and Theresa Van Sickle, both teachers at Collins Elementary School, hold signs.

Photo by Donna Agusti

Fact-finding report urges quick settlement of UCS labor contract

Report: District’s financial model is ‘unsustainable’

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published December 20, 2017

 Teachers from the Utica Education Association picket outside the Joan C. Sergent Instructional Resource Center building in Sterling Heights Dec. 11.

Teachers from the Utica Education Association picket outside the Joan C. Sergent Instructional Resource Center building in Sterling Heights Dec. 11.

Photo by Donna Agusti

A third-party fact-finder who has analyzed the Utica Community Schools district and the teachers union has something on his wish list — getting the parties to complete a labor contract settlement as soon as possible.

That’s the recommendation in a fact-finding report that the school district revealed in December. Meanwhile, on Dec. 11, hundreds of teachers from the Utica Education Association teachers union protested outside the Joan C. Sergent Instructional Resource Center building to call attention to their desire to negotiate a contract deal.

After the protest, during a Dec. 11 Board of Education meeting, UCS Board of Education legal counsel Gary Collins said the parties started collective bargaining talks in March, entered mediation in August and did approximately 10 or 11 mediation sessions. In late November, the parties entered a fact-finding hearing, and since then, a report has been issued.

Collins said the purpose of fact finding is to allow a factual and data-driven examination of the situation. He said the fact-finder — labor expert George Roumell Jr. — looked at the data on employee health care, student enrollment and more; talked to experts; and then bluntly concluded that the district is on the path to financial disaster.

“The parties are obligated to bargain upon the fact-finder’s report,” Collins said. “We are in receipt of the fact-finder’s report, and we will bargain upon the fact-finder’s report.”

Roumell’s fact-finding report says the school district’s financial model is “unsustainable,” and student enrollment declines and the state’s school funding formulas were cited.

While the report cites a Feb. 28 deadline for negotiations, it recommends that they wrap up as soon as this month.

“Delay is to the disadvantage of teachers, for the financial situation in Utica will not be stabilized,” the fact-finding report says.

The school board took no official action on the matter Dec. 11.

Roumell said the state has been watching UCS and its recent use of its fund balance, and the report warns that if UCS’s financial situation worsens, the state may consider UCS to be in “potential fiscal stress,” which could prompt the state to get involved.

“To repeat, the fact is Utica’s revenues over the years have not kept up with expenditures, while at the same time Utica has been providing top salaries as compared to other school districts for its teachers,” the report says.

In the report, Roumell made 14 financial recommendations to the parties. Among the recommendations, the report urges changes in health, dental and ancillary insurance; six staff furlough days through 2018-19; and an adjustment and slowdown in the step schedule that determines teacher pay. Roumell recommended a labor contract that expires at the end of June 2019.

According to the teachers union’s president, Liza Parkinson, the prior teachers’ contract ended last June, though the union and administrators have been in talks for almost a year.

The UEA said it has offered concessions, but it has its limits. Parkinson said the district must give the teachers fair wages, benefits and working conditions in order to bring in and keep top talent at UCS.

“One thing we won’t agree to is a major reduction in areas that directly affect our students and their classrooms,” Parkinson said in a statement. “If we were to do that, the academic excellence that the Utica Community Schools are known for would not be possible.”

When talking to the Sentry, Parkinson said she is against any attempt to disenfranchise teachers or to refuse to give them a voice.

“We are still hoping to negotiate our contract,” Parkinson said. “We have been actually trying to partner with the district in looking for solutions that are good for kids, good for teachers … so that we’re cutting edge, so that we’re creative, so that the immense resources of our human capital are fully utilized.

“We are scared of the future of our district if the school district chooses to impose these working conditions. I believe that the harm that will be caused will be (for) generations.”

Parkinson also called the fact-finding report “inaccurate and misleading,” adding that the Michigan Education Association filed a motion to reconsider the report’s findings Dec. 14.

She added that her union offered the district $1.2 million in savings with a proposal in May to change its health care plan to a high-deductible health care plan effective Jan. 1, 2018. However, she said the district would not agree to that independent of a full contract.

“We gave them enough concessions so that the ship is righted,” Parkinson said.

UCS Board of Education President Gene Klida could not be reached by press time.

Find out more about Utica Community Schools by visiting www.uticak12.org or by calling (586) 797-1000.