July 17, 2013 - Brandon Twp.- Patrick Montgomery began a speech at the July 16 Brandon School Board meeting by quoting Abraham Lincoln.
"Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor and could never have existed if labor had not existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."
The president of the Brandon Education Association read the words of the 16th U.S. President as he launched a last ditch effort to persuade the board to not impose a 7.5 percent wage cut upon the BEA membership, which includes teachers and other professional staff.
A vote to approve the wage cuts, Montgomery said, "would exemplify a level of reckless not seen by any previous Brandon Board of Education in the district's history."
Despite his plea, followed by one from a long-time art teacher who noted the impact it would have on students as she would be forced to take a second job and would not have the time to devote to entering student art in competition, the board unanimously approved a 7.5 percent reduction in teacher salaries.
"It's an unfortunate situation," said Board President Kevin McClellan following the meeting. "We were left with no choice. There was an offer on the table some time ago—we proposed a 5 percent cut and the union wanted a 5 percent increase. The amount (of the wage cut) increased because there was no movement and it put us deeper in the hole."
The board and the BEA have been in contract negotiations for two years. Lack of progress prompted a mediator to be brought in and when that failed, the two sides agreed upon a neutral fact finder appointed by the Michigan Employment Relations Commission. The fact finder met with administrators and BEA representatives in March, during which both sides presented information and arguments. In May, the fact finder, Ralph Maccarone, released his findings, ultimately agreeing with the district's recommendation that a 7.5 percent reduction in teacher salary schedules was in order. The district has cited the need for the reductions due to a loss of students (more than 500 since 2006) and fund balance that has dwindled from roughly 10 percent to less than 5 percent with the loss in per-pupil funding.
The district and the BEA were bound by law to negotiate for 60 days following the results of the fact finding. If at the end of 60 days, no contract had been reached, the district could implement the reductions, which is what the board approved Monday night. The salary reductions could have been implemented in part through furlough days, but Superintendent Lorrie McMahon said because there was no settlement with the union, the 7.5 percent cuts will be taken directly off their pay. She noted there is still time for negotiations.
The cuts were necessary, McMahon said, to help the district maintain a positive budget for the next two years. The wage reductions are effective through 2015, and will save the district approximately $1 million annually.
Montgomery acknowledged the district has argued the wage reductions are necessary to prevent future economic disaster, but said comparing Brandon to districts with negative fund balances such as Buena Vista (which shut down schools early this year due to a lack of money), Inkster, Pontiac and Bloomfield Hills is like comparing apples to oranges, as Brandon has a positive fund balance of 4.55 percent.
He also noted the board and Superintendent Lorrie McMahon have cited declining student enrollment and projections of continued student losses as reasons for the necessary wage reductions, but said the teachers and other staff are the answer to reversing the trend.
In his failed appeal to the board, Montgomery said a wrong assessment had been made that somehow the BEA membership had not sacrificed enough for the district, despite willingly accepting concessions in wages and medical benefits over the past several years.
Those concessions have included wage and "step" freezes (step wage increases have been previously awarded to teachers commensurate with years of experience in Brandon).
Montgomery warned that wage cuts would mean that Brandon, historically a district with low turnover rate among teachers, would not remain so as teachers who did not want to leave Brandon would be forced to based on a new economic reality.
"Look around this room for a moment," said Montgomery, in a room at the I-TEC Center packed full of teachers, as well as other observers. "We are not 'numbers on a balance sheet'! We have debt, mortgages, student loans—for which many BEA members still wait for recognition and compensation for receiving an advanced degree—, children, food, day care, and so on."
Laura Frye, a special education teacher in the district, said she is frustrated by what is happening.
"We've had so many cuts and a freeze over the last few years," she noted. "As a district, we have to focus on what we have to bring kids here. It feels like a lot of in-fighting and people don't want to be in that environment… We have to get more kids and keep kids here."
Frye is also concerned about a higher turnover rate, and noted the recent resignations of a social worker as well as three special education teachers. Frye had spent a lot of time working with those colleagues preparing an in-school program for special education students. Now that work has been lost with their resignations because they found higher salaries elsewhere.
"There is no consistency when we're losing people all the time," Frye said.
Montgomery said at the end of his speech to the board that the business of Brandon must be its teachers and staff, and the focus and direction of Brandon must be the kids.
McClellan agreed it is about the kids.
"We didn't create the situation," he said. "The only way things get better is to communicate openly and so far that is extremely difficult with their (BEA) representation. We have to move forward together and talk about the issues. It's time to lick wounds and get back to work."
Montgomery is making other plans.
"The next step is we will file a motion in circuit court for an injunction against the imposition of 7.5 percent salary reductions," he said. "Then we'll file unfair labor practice charges with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission. This will be a long, drawn-out battle."
McMahon said that is a battle that the BEA will not win and is a waste of taxpayer dollars.
"If we are in a better position, we would love to give some of these cuts back in 2015 for all of our employees," she said. "If we had an increase in per-pupil funding, we would want to share that with the entire staff… We continue to work on new enrollment, we are offering more courses, the online academy has brought a lot of inquiries and helped people decide to stay n Brandon… We have a very professional staff, our teachers are one of the main reasons people come here and they will continue to be professionals. These salary cuts may offer us opportunities to support more programs for students."
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville