‘Just amazing’ MEA contract wins continue through summer

A photo of Robert Fenton smiling in his classroom
Spanish teacher Robert Fenton feels validated by a strong new contract in Flint’s Beecher schools.

Soon after teachers in Flint’s Beecher Community School District settled a strong contract, staff at the combined middle/high school enjoyed a visit by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on her back-to-school tour – joined by NEA President Becky Pringle and MEA President Chandra Madafferi.

After a decade of financial struggle and stagnation, the Beecher Education Association’s new contract includes steps and on-schedule increases of 18% over three years, a fully funded health savings account, and a $10,000 bonus over three payments this year, said MEA UniServ Director Bruce Jordan.

“They’re still toward the bottom of pay in Genesee County because they have so far to go to catch up, but the consistent state funding increases over the past few years, along with (federal American Rescue Plan) dollars, have been able to put them on the right track,” Jordan said.

During their visit on Beecher’s first day of school, the governor and two union presidents stopped in classrooms, held a press conference, and delivered donuts as after-school treats for the staff.

MEA member Robert Fenton said it was validating to have the dignitaries stop in his last-hour Spanish class. Certified in instructional coaching, the 34-year veteran said their presence underscored the positive messages educators received from the strong new contract.

“It validates what we do to be recognized by leaders of the state and leaders of our union that – yeah, because you do the valuable work that you do, you deserve a raise. Because you put in the hard work that it takes to educate kids despite all the barriers we have today, you deserve more compensation.

“Of course, it’s not all about the money, but it seemed like we were always getting the short end of the deal,” he added. “We deserve it. It’s not an easy job. We work really hard here, and it feels really good to be noticed and appreciated and rewarded for what we do.”

Many strong late-summer contract agreements followed in the lines of similar spring settlements, thanks to a fifth-straight year of record school funding from the state plus federal COVID-relief money.

In September, Lansing Schools Education Association President Chuck Alberts announced a “momentous deal” – a four-year pact that raised starting pay to $45,355, increased steps by 14%, restored up to six steps from frozen years, and formed a new safety committee to consider policy changes, among other highlights.

In Kalamazoo, the union of education support professionals bargained the largest wage increase that President Joanna Miller had seen in recent years – an increase of $2 to $4 per hour for campus safety personnel, paraprofessionals, office staff and teaching assistants.

“We made incredible headway; we did so much good for so many people,” Miller told M-Live.

A deal by the Waterford Education Association also is doing a lot of good, raising up teachers to their rightful experience step who were denied service credit when hired. In addition, the salary schedule changed from 20 steps to 15 – for a faster rise to the top – with increased pay at steps along the way.

Waterford had numerous open positions at the time of the settlement in August, which were quickly filled after the new contract’s publication, said MEA UniServ Director Lori Tunick.

“Had we not come to this deal, Waterford would have started the year with over 40 vacancies,” she said. “In the past, every time the district offered a position to a candidate, they heard, ‘No thanks – I can make $10,000 more in fill-in-the-blank district.’”

In two years the WEA had 40% turnover in membership, and the bargaining team used comparisons to neighboring districts to show management what needed to change. “After we made clear they were training staff for other districts, they realized they were wasting their resources,” Tunick said.

A photo of supportive buttons on a teacher's lanyard
Teachers in Comstock wore buttons
to get new contract language around
student behavior and safety.

In Cadillac, an effort to build up weak spots in the schedule led to an impressive 9% career earnings boost in one bargain – a $175,000 increase over the 30-year span. Settlement came through mediation.

“We created a pay schedule that is definitely more aggressive in trying to keep teachers in Cadillac – to the point where some teachers have said, ‘Hey, this helps my family to make the decision to stay,’” said Luke Rumohr, a 20-year middle school history teacher and member of the bargaining team.

“It’s been really great to hear from members who love teaching and now they can look at their salary and feel justified in staying in the profession,” Ruhmor added. “We have a lot more work to do, but we’re excited to move forward.”

Bargainers in rural Comstock, east of Kalamazoo, won a 6% on-schedule increase over two years, plus step credit for actual years of service, which meant some members will see close to a $20,000 pay boost this year, said MEA UniServ Director Greylor Walston..

“We have a significant number of middle-tier teachers who were not given credit for their full years of service when they hired in, who have worked in the district for a number of years, and then saw new people coming in and getting all of their years on the schedule,” Walston said. “They were leaving.”

In the past two bargains, the focus was on improving early-career salaries, but members agreed: now was time to address the middle part of the schedule plus make all teachers whole, said Comstock Education Association President Kim Sandefur, a fourth grade teacher in the STEM Academy.

It was Sandefur’s first time leading a bargain after six years on the team and the end of her first year as president. She brought data and pie charts to make the case, she said. For example, the district has hired 50 new teachers in a staff of 120 in the past two years.

“The visuals helped to tell the story, especially the pie chart of years of experience teaching in the district – not all experience, just in the district. The 10-20 year piece of the pie was maybe 2%.”

Once financial agreement was reached, the union’s bargaining team had a heavier lift which members had prioritized in surveys: adding language to address student behavior, an increasing concern of educators across the state. (Read more on page 8.)

In a survey, more than half of staff said they had been verbally or physically assaulted by a student in the past year. Hearing that, the district agreed to discussion, but finding consensus was not easy.

To advance the talks, the union team adapted settled contract language from other districts and encouraged members to wear buttons saying, “Comstock teachers deserve a safe workplace.”

A two-way policy emerged in the end. The district agreed to follow guidelines and communicate outcomes for student behavior referrals, and teachers got clear procedures for documenting incidents.

Further contract language explains teachers’ right to snap suspend a student from a class or activity with documentation and parent contact. The contract also spells out new policies for staff who are injured in an assault to get district-covered time for related treatment and recovery.

The safety language is not perfect, but it’s a good start, Sandefur said.

Centering the experiences of members and bringing collective action to make progress on salaries and safety felt “just amazing,” she added. “To set goals and then to see it happen and get nothing but good responses from members – it sets the tone for a very positive year.”


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