UCS agreement with union cuts spending

Teacher wages, benefits affected

By: Eric Czarnik | C&G Newspapers | Published March 2, 2018

File photo by Donna Agusti

STERLING HEIGHTS — After months of talks that eventually resulted in outside mediation, Utica Community Schools approved a new contract agreement with the Utica Education Association teachers union during a Feb. 26 Board of Education meeting.

The Board of Education voted to approve the deal 6-0, with Trustee Ken Krolczyk recusing himself after stating that his wife is part of a bargaining unit.

Prior to the deal, the school district and the union had been talking since last March, but no agreement was reached, and the previous contract expired at the end of June 2017. So the two parties went into arbitration and then had a third-party fact-finder review the school district’s financial situation in November, with a report released in December.

The fact-finder concluded that a deal should be made right away between the two parties because the district has been on a financial road to trouble. It said the Michigan Department of Treasury urged UCS to change financial course, away from structural deficits, to prevent a possible “determination of financial stress” from taking place that could lead to a loss of local control.

School district officials stressed that the state’s 2017 list of districts that are under early warning did not include UCS. They noted that declining birthrates and a state-imposed $470 per-pupil funding reduction in 2010-11 — followed by smaller increases — have contributed to the district’s financial woes.

During the Feb. 26 meeting, some school board members mentioned how difficult the negotiation process was, and they thanked teachers for their professionalism and hard work.

“Negotiations are never easy,” board Secretary Jennifer Prybys said. “If a negotiation is finalized and both sides of the table, neither one, is necessarily doing backflips, but they can mutually agree to disagree but agree on the high points ... that’s supposed to be what’s considered an effective and an accurate negotiation.”

After the meeting, UCS Superintendent Christine Johns said collective bargaining is a process, and both sides worked together to get to an agreement.

“This slows the structural deficits, and this addresses the expenditures,” Johns said. “We need to continue to work with our lawmakers to address the revenues.”

District officials said the deal, which is good through June 30, 2019, will save around $9.4 million and will slow the district’s deficits — but it won’t single-handedly balance the budget.

District officials said the agreement follows guidelines set in the fact-finder’s report. While district officials point out the savings, the union is pointing out that the agreement results in around $4.3 million in reductions to teachers’ wages.

Salaries will be affected by a step freeze for 2017-18 and a half of a step freeze in 2018-19. Over the course of the new agreement, teachers will have to take five unpaid furlough days.

Benefits are also affected — such as changing health insurance to a high-deductible plan and changing the insurance carrier under the dental plan.

The new deal also puts a calendar into place for the next school year.

During the Feb. 26 meeting, Board of Education President Gene Klida emphasized that the agreement was only one step toward balancing revenues and spending. She attributed the difficulty to Lansing’s limited support for school funding, and she asked the community to tell legislators to fund education according to its true costs.

“Our state lawmakers must realize that the current school funding system is broken and needs to be replaced,” Klida said.

After the meeting, Stephanie Eagen, assistant superintendent for business and auxiliary services, said UCS has only received a net increase in student funding of $87 per pupil over the past 10 years, while some other school districts have received five times more of an increase.

Johns said the state is responsible for funding schools, and state officials determine how the money is distributed. She said local school districts lack the ability to generate revenue, as property tax dollars go straight to the state before being redistributed.

“Just as the roads situation in Macomb County, there is concern that southeast Michigan, Macomb County, has not received its fair share,” Johns said. “The same thing would be true for schools.”

On the union’s side, UEA President Liza Parkinson said teachers are a critical component of effective education. She called the teacher salary reductions a “short-term fix” and criticized UCS for not exploring efficiencies.

“We’re never going to be happy about taking a pay cut,” she said. “This is a hardship for our families, and this is on top of years of not getting raises.

“We are still hopeful that Utica Schools will work with us to find efficiencies so that this only happens once. The district blamed the state. There is truth to that, but Utica needs to curb its spending.”

Parkinson said she is also “really disappointed in the lack of leadership” coming from the superintendent.

“She should’ve taken a pay cut before asking us for one,” Parkinson said. “The response from the district was, that won’t help the budget. But my response was, that would show leadership.”

In an email, UCS spokesman Tim McAvoy criticized Parkinson’s comments as being “deceptive” when pertaining to Johns’ leadership.

“The district administration, through the leadership of the superintendent, has previously accepted salary and step freezes and furlough days,” he said. “They have already accepted the high-deductible health insurance and the carrier change.”

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