By KATHLEEN LOFTUS
Capital News Service
LANSING – About a third of public school districts have teachers, office personnel, maintenance staff or custodians working without contracts.
Workers at one Genesee County district have been without a contract for almost eight years, and contracts expired in 2005 or 2007 in two Wayne County districts.
And in the Upper Peninsula, the teachers’ contracts with Chassell Township Schools ran out in August 2008.
With the struggling economy, many contracts last only one year rather than two or three years as in the past, said Rosemary Carey, Michigan Education Association (MEA) communications consultant.
The MEA is the state’s largest union of school employees.
Most agreements go unsettled because of disputes over salary and benefits and uncertainty about upcoming budget cuts and state aid, Carey said.
“Now we’re in a limbo until the governor and legislators complete the state budget. Unsettled contracts are primarily based on uncertainty of funding for the districts,” Carey said.
And when bargaining drags on, it doesn’t mean it’s an ugly dispute – it means the parties are still meeting, she said.
According to the MEA, non-teaching staff in the Beecher Community School District near Flint have worked without a contract since 2003.
It’s been more than a year since contracts expired in the East Jackson, Harper Woods, Redford Union, Richmond, Royal Oak, Trenton, Flint and Woodhaven districts, the union said.
Todd Biederwolf, superintendent of the Harper Woods School District said the two sides have settled every contract except for the teaching staff.
Historically, districts received an increase in revenue to cover rising health and transportation costs, but funding has declined in the past few years, so districts need to reduce personnel costs, he said.
Biederwolf said he is confident that his district’s teachers remain professional and dedicated in the classroom, with or without a contract, although he said some have stopped attending evening events they were never required to support but had.
He said contracts are still being negotiated in good faith so teachers can plan accordingly.
The MEA’s Carey said the lack of labor agreements hasn’t changed instruction for the most part.
She said, for example, students and parents walking into a classroom wouldn’t know that more than 300 Woodhaven teachers have gone without a contract since 2007.
No one wants to work without a contract because there is so much insecurity, but the effects vary throughout the districts, Carey said.
It hurts the teachers, parents, staff, everyone. Teachers don’t know whether they’ll have a job or not.
“It means kids are placed in classrooms of 40 rather than 30 students. There may not be enough money for essential resources such as books. Everything in schools impacts student education” she said.
Carey said school employees continue to work because they’re professionals on a mission to ensure good education, adding, “it’s amazing what people do because they care about the kids.”
Tom White is the Michigan Association of School Board associate director of labor relations. The organization advises and assists school districts in collective bargaining.
He said more districts than ever before have unsettled contracts, but most old contracts have provisions that allow the districts to carry forward until negotiations are done.
Common unsettled issues include health care and increased salaries.
White said 60 percent of teachers pay some portion of their health insurance, but when insurance premiums increase, so do costs for districts if contracts aren’t updated.
About 30 to 40 percent of districts in northern Michigan have dollar cap on how much they pay for health insurance, he said. In West Michigan, many districts have no cap and must pay more when insurance and other benefits increase.
White said health benefits, raises and the economy make it tough for unions and management to agree. And that can create tension between school boards and superintendents on one side and school employees on the other.
White said some districts report a decline in morale that negatively impacts teachers.
“For me, if we don’t settle a contract, it can be an issue that affects the ability to run our schools,” White said.