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After months of tense negotiations, BPS comes closer to settling contracts for employees

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published November 9, 2015

 BPS staff had been working since the beginning of the school year without a contract due to negotiation sticking points.

BPS staff had been working since the beginning of the school year without a contract due to negotiation sticking points.

Photo provided by Karen Daykin

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BIRMINGHAM — According to Birmingham Public Schools Superintendent Daniel Nerad, as of press time last week, four of five of the district’s bargaining units had settled and ratified new contracts, putting employees on both sides of the table a bit more at ease than they’d been for the past few months.

Only the teachers union is left, and Nerad said he is hopeful their contract will be settled at the next Board of Education meeting in mid-November.

But those agreements weren’t easy to come by. Just a few weeks ago, as Nerad and the board opened their regularly scheduled meeting Oct. 20, their remarks could barely be heard over the shouts coming from outside.

District employees — including teachers, clerical staff and paraprofessionals — had been working for months without a contract. And they wanted the board and anyone watching to know they’d had enough.

During the course of the meeting, several people got up to address the board, including Steve Amberg, executive director of the Michigan Education Association, and Scott Warrow, president of the Birmingham Education Association.

Their message, echoed by others that evening, was that they didn’t believe their parties were being treated fairly at the bargaining table, and they were losing faith the longer negotiations went on.

“While we want to settle our contracts too, but we’re not prepared to settle until we achieve fair and equitable contracts,” said Amberg that evening. “We believe we are somewhat distant from achieving that goal. Tonight, you may have heard many of my members outside in a symbolic gesture to show alienation from this district. They feel like they’re no longer heard — no longer matter — and the board simply offers empty praise that they no longer believe.”

Though neither party was willing to disclose to the Eagle details of the negotiations, both agreed that one of the major sticking points that held up a contract agreement for the parties was financial. Bargaining, according to Nerad, began in mid-March of this year and in total included about 50 sessions. 

Warrow argued to the board that their effort to preserve the district’s healthy fund equity instead of dipping in to pay staff was driving staff away from the district.

“Since June 2014, in the HR reports approved by this board, there were 60 resignations. Ten percent of your staff left. Why are they leaving? They’re not resigning; they’re going to other school districts. Follow the data; it’s there,” he said. “One-third of your paraprofessional staff has resigned. There’s such a turnover they can’t post jobs fast enough to fill the need. We can’t keep paraprofessionals here because you don’t pay them enough.”

Groves High School secretary Karen Daykin echoed those statements. Even after her unit’s contract had been settled, she said district employees were shaken after the process, which began last fall.

“We started out badly. The contracts for all three bargaining units expired June 3, 2015, and all three units made demands to bargain in September of 2014. But (the district) wouldn’t bargain until April of 2015,” she said, noting that she couldn’t be sure why BPS dragged its feet to negotiate.

Nerad said it isn’t unusual for contracts to take time to negotiate, and noted that at least twice in recent history — the 2008-10 and 2010-11 contracts — they were settled in January of that school year. He countered that the delay was a matter of necessity.

“We had to wait until the final state budget was passed to know what kind of revenue we would be having as a school district,” he said. “We can’t bargain economics as a school district without that information, and it wasn’t until June that we had that information. But there were discussions earlier than that as far as the language elements.”

Nerad also argued that the district has and will dip into its fund equity to pay staff, but with state revenue coming in that doesn’t meet costs, that model isn’t sustainable. More than $2.3 million of this year’s operating budget will come from this fund to bridge the gap between revenue and costs. In June, BPS Business Services Assistant Superintendent Debbie Piesz reported that the fund had an estimated balance of $11,590,190, leaving a cushion of just over $9.2 million.

“We understand that all districts are feeling the punch by education cuts made by the state,” said Daykin. “We don’t want to create a more contentious environment, but our position was made very clear in the speeches we gave at the Board of Education meeting Oct. 20. The fact is that the district has a huge fund equity.”

More than just financial, many people involved said the tone of the negotiations was part of the problem. Amberg said at the Oct. 20 meeting that the process was so tough, there were times when his bargaining team was allegedly told that the school board’s philosophy was that the secretaries and parapros could be readily replaced, and they “could go to any bus stop in the city and hire competent people to be parapros.”

“These allegations have not been made by me or any member of my team. I do not believe this whatsoever, and I would not say something like this,” said Nerad. 

He did happily report, though, that all units, except teachers, were at a comfortable financial agreement as of Nov. 3. They also settled language in the contracts, most notably items that dictate what happens in the event of transfers for paraprofessionals.

“We addressed the economic issues as to what salaries will be going forward, and in each case a number of language items were worked through in negotiations,” he said. “I understand the frustration that exists, but from my perspective, we now need to have a forward look and recognize that both parties have been working diligently to resolve these contracts, and the good news is that they are, with the one left remaining to be resolved.”

Daykin said her peers are also pleased that the contracts are finally in place.

“I think we ended up with a good deal as we could get, and I’m happy with the agreement made, but we could’ve started out differently and started out earlier,” she said. “I hope we’re on our way to a better relationship.”

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