Teachers affiliated with the Utica Education Association union gather outside the site of a Utica Community Schools Board of Education meeting to rally for a contract Oct. 28.

Teachers affiliated with the Utica Education Association union gather outside the site of a Utica Community Schools Board of Education meeting to rally for a contract Oct. 28.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

Teachers union seeks recovery of salary steps in Sterling Heights

UCS gets praise in audit, says it bargains in good faith

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published November 4, 2019


STERLING HEIGHTS — The union representing Utica Community Schools’ teachers is seeking a labor agreement that guarantees them a path to restore salary steps after years of no raises.

Members of the Utica Education Association rallied for more pay at a Utica Community Schools Board of Education meeting Oct. 28.

After the board meeting, UEA President Liza Parkinson said teachers took a pay cut as part of the last teacher contract, and their wages haven’t seen an increase in around nine years.

“We believe it’s time to respect our teachers in terms of professional voice and in terms of restoring our wage,” Parkinson said. “We have a frozen wage. The teachers that have earned, say, a master’s degree can’t get an increase for that.”

Parkinson said the UEA started labor negotiations with UCS in March toward a new agreement. The last contract then expired in June. And when a contract expires, typically teachers work under the old contract’s conditions, she said.

Since then, there hasn’t been much movement at the negotiation table, she said.

“I think people need to understand that no one went into teaching expecting to get wealthy,” she said. “People went into teaching so they could have autonomy over their classroom … and would be resourced properly to support students.”

The state of Michigan cut school district funding statewide by $470 per pupil in 2012. But lawmakers have gradually increased and replenished school districts’ per-pupil foundation allowance funding. According to UCS, the 2019 foundation allowance was $8,020 per student, compared to $7,807 in 2009.

Parkinson said other nearby school districts, like Romeo, Anchor Bay and Chippewa Valley, decided to give salary steps back to their teachers, allowing them to get raises. She said the UEA is asking for the same thing.

She said the school board’s Oct. 28 meeting revealed that the district recently added roughly $6 million to its fund equity, about a  25% increase. She believes that that money belongs to the teachers and other employees.

“We have sacrificed $65 million,” she said. “We’re 5 1/2 (salary) steps behind. People at the top of the scale haven’t seen a raise in over 10 years. That’s why we keep saying it’s time, because (UCS) has been restored.”

Parkinson said the union organized its own employee climate survey through an independent company, which asked union members what they think about their employment in the district. The results were set to be publicly released in early November, she said.

The union planned to have a membership meeting Nov. 3 to decide its course of action with the negotiations.

“If we don’t have a tentative agreement, it is possible that we will take a vote,” Parkinson said. “It’s going to say that the membership is authorizing crisis activity up to and including job action.”


UCS financial reporting praised in audit
On Oct. 28, district officials listened to a presentation on the district’s 2018-19 fiscal year and subsequent audit. Auditing firm Plante Moran said it rated UCS’ financial reporting as unmodified and excellent, akin to an A+. The district also received a Certificate of Excellence in Financial Reporting from the Association of School Business Officials International.

The district reported $275 million in revenue and $269 million in spending over the 2018-19 fiscal year. The great majority of revenue comes from the state. UCS reported that roughly 80% of the budget goes to instruction and instructional support.

Plante Moran partner Donna Hanson said UCS is among the region’s biggest spenders by percentage when it comes to spending that supports teachers, paraprofessionals and classroom instruction.

The auditing firm said the 2012 cut of $470 per pupil meant a total cumulative loss of around $54.8 million in funding since the cut originally occurred. The loss of funding was blamed for the district having to tap into its fund balance for several years.

The fund balance in 2019 sits at $28.6 million, about 10.6% of spending, after a gradual rise from the 2016 low of $17.9 million, or about 6.6% of spending. During the meeting, board President Robert Ross commented on the district’s finances and current fund balance.

“Since our fiscal calendars don’t line up, we need to have money to carry in cash to be able to pay the bills over the summer,” he said. “And so the (fund balance) number that we have right now is about a little over 10%, and that’s hovering right on the edge of where we have to borrow money in order to operate the district.”

After the Oct. 28 meeting, school officials said the fund balance is an important part of financial stability. UCS Superintendent Christine Johns said the state has early warning legislation that falls into place if a school district’s fund balance falls below 5%, and she said that’s neither in the district’s nor the teachers’ interest.

“Lansing will be involved. They could be instructive in basically ordering the district to make certain cuts, including addressing collective bargaining agreements that exist,” Johns said. “The fund balance is an important part of operations for the district, and the Board of Education has targeted a 10% fund balance as a percentage of expenditures.”

Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources and Transportation Michael Sturm said the bargaining parties previously agreed on the teacher salary step freezes in past negotiations.

“When you talk about steps, steps represent pay increases that need to be negotiated,” Sturm said. “Any change in steps would reflect higher salary costs and would need to be adjusted for or accounted for by the district.”

While no new contract is in place, most of the same principles of the former agreements apply, Sturm said. He also said there is no deadline to make a new contract.

“But it is important that we’re always continuing to collectively bargain in good faith, and that has always been our intention,” he explained.

In response, Parkinson said the union agreed to freezes and furloughs in order to keep the school district whole and not harm classrooms, but she said UCS has since been restored. She also said that the district published a letter to the public about its audit results — hours before a Tuesday negotiation session — which she believed was intended to influence negotiations.

“The timing of that is very suspicious,” she said.

UCS spokesman Tim McAvoy said he has “a hard time understanding what is suspicious about it.”

“The annual audit is always presented at this time of year at a public board meeting by Plante Moran, one of the nation’s largest independent auditors,” he said. “This is part of an annual communication that we always do.”