Farmington teachers, staff see red over stalled contract talks

For nearly two hours Tuesday night, Farmington Public Schools (FPS) teachers, support staff, and parents – many wearing red as a show of unity – urged officials to wrap up union contract negotiations that have dragged on for about a year.

Staffers shared personal stories that melded a love for their profession with financial struggles after eight years of cutbacks and concessions. Superintendent Dr. George Heitsch said while the district is committed to a “fair and equitable” process, officials must also deal with a loss of students and stagnant per pupil funding.

“We’re in a position where the issues we’re talking about are more difficult than they may have been in the past,” he said.

Bus drivers and mechanics have settled, but teachers and support staff started the school year without a contract. Lori Tunick, Michigan Education Association Uniserv Director for Farmington Schools, said the district’s 2015-2016 audit brought good financial news, and more savings will be realized with the closure of schools, privatization of custodial services, and sale of the Maxfield Training Center.

“We have people who are still getting paid 2008 wages,” Tunick said before the meeting. “It’s time for employees to get back some of the sacrifices they’ve made since 2008.”

Step freezes, increased retirement and health contributions

Speakers during the November 22 Board of Education meeting explained the impact of frozen wages and step increases (salary bumps based on years of experience), coupled with increased retirement and health insurance costs.

Science teacher Elizabeth Crane said she started at a salary of $40,109. Seven years later, after earning a Master’s degree, she’s paid $48,800. Factoring in larger retirement and health insurance contributions and increased cost of living, she said, “I actually take home less than I did when I started seven years ago.”

Emily Lamott said she and her husband, Andrew, both FPS teachers, have lost a combined $112,000 over the past six years, enough to pay for their oldest daughter’s college education.

“That number is unfathomable to me,” she said, acknowledging past sacrifices were necessary because of the district’s dire circumstances.

Mamie Giller, who has been with the district since 2005, said she has lost more than $62,000 in compensation because of step freezes alone.

“This is just the amount of money that was promised when I was hired in 2005, and has not been given,” she said. “I have honored my end of the bargain. I think it’s time that Farmington Public Schools keeps up theirs.”

Giller was among several staff members who said they were disappointed to hear talk at the bargaining table that teachers haven’t made enough concessions. “I am not sure how my personal $62,064, in combination with our 640 members, is not enough,” she said.

Several teachers said they have taken part-time jobs to make ends meet. Kelly Hughes, in her ninth year of teaching, said her salary would be considered “entry level” salary in the corporate world.

“Such financial cuts and demands would never be uttered in a male-dominated profession…but it seems to be required for us as teachers in a female-dominated profession,” she said.

What’s next?

Farmington Education Association president Dave Workman told officials that teachers stand ready to help address the district’s challenges, and the first step involves building, rather than staying in “cut mode.”

“That’s the first behavior we have to change,” he said. “When we do that, we start to build the momentum, and it gets contagious and all of a sudden people are moving back. Settling the contract would actually be the best first step.”

Heitsch noted the “courage and honesty” staff members showed in speaking. He said officials are also committed to “doing the best we can” for the district, and retaining qualified and dedicated teachers.

“It’s by working collaboratively and being committed to solving this problem that we’ll get there,” he said.

According to Tunick, both sides will come back to the bargaining table on November 30. If an agreement isn’t forthcoming, she said, the unions will file for “fact finding,” through which a judge will determine a fair settlement. The decision is not binding, but the process opens information from both sides to the public, she said.

It would be an unusual step, particularly for Farmington Public Schools.

“This is the first time in about 10 years that people have started back without a contract,” she said.

Watch the full meeting at tv-10.pegcentral.com.

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