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Fact finder backs teacher wage cuts

May 08, 2013 - Brandon Twp.- A state-appointed fact finder has recommended that teachers in the district accept a 7.5 percent wage reduction for two years.

Ralph Maccarone, appointed by the Michigan Employment Relations Committee as a neutral party to help in contract negotiations between the Brandon Education Association and school district, issued on May 5 an 18-page report culminating in his recommendation that the BEA accept the district's wage reduction proposal.

"Given everything before me, and struggling with the issue of an argument on one side, of an insurmountable lack of funds to operate on a balanced budget over the foreseeable future; and on the other side, to hear the argument of excessive loss of income and reduction of residual lifetime retirement payments; I am convinced that both parties have made an almost equal case," wrote Maccarone in his conclusion.

"Considering that the first objective of a school district is to provide a safe and quality education, an objective clearly sought by both parties, I choose to err on the side of continued local control. My recommendation in this matter is that the association accepts the district's proposal to preserve the district's ability for self-determination, with unpaid furlough days as can be agreed upon to achieve the district's requested savings."

Superintendent Lorrie McMahon said a 7.5 percent salary schedule reduction for the teachers would save the district about $1 million each year of the contract and those savings include wages, taxes, and a reduction in the district's retirement contribution obligation. Combined with another $1.2 million in approved budget cuts, the teacher salary reductions would make the district solvent, she said.

However, Maccarone's recommendation is just that—a recommendation. It is non-binding.

"Neither party will be compelled to accept this recommendation," said BEA President Patrick Montgomery, who represents 170 district teachers. "It focuses the issue. It's a new avenue that both parties can follow for a different starting point… The argument presented was valid on both sides and (Maccarone) agreed. However, the idea we are compelled to accept the recommendation is not on the table."

The two sides are bound by law to negotiate for 60 days on the recommendation of the fact finder. If they do not reach an agreement, the district can impose their last offer.

"I was asked during fact finding if this was a fair reduction," said McMahon. "I don't think any of this is fair, I think it is necessary. I think the fact finder has accepted our evidence and realizes the district needs to make some drastic changes. It gives the BEA and the district a new starting spot to carry forward."

The BEA had originally brought to the March 21 hearing before Maccarone a proposal of salary step (wage) increases for the 2013-2014 school year. After arguments were presented by both sides, the BEA wrote in a final brief that while wage increases may not be possible at this time, the district was asking for too much in wage concessions too fast.

District officials and the BEA have struggled to reach a contract agreement for more than a year. When mediation was unsuccessful last fall, the district petitioned the MESC to appoint a neutral fact finder agreed upon by both parties.

The district is facing a $1.2 million budget deficit this year and has had budget shortfalls for years with massive declines in students since 2006, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars lost in per-pupil funding yearly. The fund balance has dwindled to the point where it will be negative in 2014 without action. If that were to occur, the state could appoint an emergency manager for the district.

In an effort to balance the budget next month, the school board has approved restructuring buildings in the district, the lay-offs of two administrators, and other cuts to save money.

In the past several years, cuts to balance the district's budget have included wage and benefit concessions from bus drivers, maintenance workers, central office support staff and administration, and the privatization of custodial services (after the group had previously taken wage concessions).

The BEA has not taken wage reductions, but instead accepted a wage freeze the last two years.

"We are not figures on a balance sheet," said Montgomery. "We have mortgages and student loans and we need to put food on the table for our kids. We are teaching children, these aren't just numbers to us, $7,000 a head. Anyone who went into teaching didn't do it for the money, but we deserve to make an honest living. I understand its hard times and there are things out of our control."

In Maccarone's report, he states the BEA claims the 7.5 percent salary reduction for the 2013-2014 school year will result in a wage reduction of $5,305 in 2013-2014 and an additional $5,305 in 2014-2015 for a total of a $10,610 loss of wages over a 24 month period or $442 per month (average per teacher).

In the post hearing brief, the BEA wrote, "The district is simply asking for too much too fast. A 7.5 percent reduction in wages, earnings over $400 per month less on average, is just too much to ask of its employees, especially with no guarantee of relief at the end of this rocky period. If the district's projections are accurate, they have no recourse but to go to the voters with the facts and ask them to step up rather than to place this burden on the teachers."

In the district's post hearing brief, district administrators wrote, "there are no viable alternatives to a BEA salary schedule reduction…. Without a 7.5 percent BEA salary reduction, another million dollars of reductions is not adequate to stave off an unlawful deficit budget."

Administrators concluded the brief by saying the school board is not optimistic that a recommendation from the fact finder would have any real impact on the BEA.

If this is true, Maccarone wrote in his report, "then this exercise has been informative for the fact finder, a privilege to have served in, and an abject failure in all other respects."

"I urge a return to trust that may have been lost over time," he continued. "If the parties cannot agree before triggering a budget deficit report, decisions of importance to all involved with the district will end up in the hand of others. And those others will in the end seek financial results. Class size, number of employees and school programs mean little in a balance sheet calculation. But in fairness to those who would wrest control over the district, that is their job. Some do a better job than others. The problems facing the parties are not unique. As to every Michigan local unit of government in a budget crisis seeking relief, the facts are the same. Assessed values may not rise quickly enough, the State Constitution cannot be amended fast enough; state laws cannot become effective to provide the desired relief soon enough; and the appetite for legislators and other elected officials to gain the support of the public to raise taxes to resolve funding crises of all sorts in this down turned economy is virtually non-existent."

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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