‘The pendulum is finally swinging back’
Last year Angie Pullen began her fourth term as president of a local unit of paraeducators and administrative assistants in Cadillac and saw the fruition of 10 years of effort in the form of a powerful new contract.
For the first time, Pullen’s bargaining team joined forces with the local teacher’s union – with both negotiating new contracts – and in solidarity won members a $4.75 an hour raise over four years, starting with $3 this year. The total amounted to an average member pay increase of 36 percent.
“I’ve been a part of three negotiations, and on this – my fourth – we went in with the ammunition to say, ‘Listen: we’re tired of giving up to get something; we’ve given up for years, and there’s nothing else to give up. We want to get now.”
In addition to the sizable pay increase, the group won improvements to dental and vision benefits, increased longevity payments, and a signing bonus for everyone.
The unit had only seen pay increase by a total of 11% in the previous 10 years, and by last spring the district was sitting on a 28% fund balance, said MEA UniServ Director Kari Guy.
“We’ve had people working two and three jobs, and others were leaving for surrounding districts that were paying more – paras who were trained reading specialists had left the district – and we told the superintendent, ‘You are contributing to this.’ We really held our ground,” Guy said.
The settlement for Cadillac paras and secretaries led a spring and summer wave of strong contracts in the wake of several years of strong funding for public education under the leadership of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
School support staff are key to success in any district, but their pay in Cadillac did not reflect their importance, said Pullen, a 22-year veteran paraeducator who runs a student success center at the middle school.
“I told the board and superintendent if we don’t start feeling appreciated our people will continue moving to other schools as they already have in the past several years,” Pullen said.
The bargaining team used data from MEA’s Cost Alignment Calculator showing wages in the district trending downward over time and comparing current rates to neighboring districts to make their case that a substantial raise was needed, Pullen said.
To hammer it home, members of her unit joined together with the teachers in a mutual assistance pact – a best practice that is growing across the state. Together the Cadillac teachers and support staff ordered “unity” t-shirts and are acting jointly in support of each other.
Dana Jobin, president of the teachers’ union, gathered 80 letters from teachers and support staff backing the settlement and put copies in binders for each school board member as the contract made its way toward approval.
More than 100 people packed the board room in June when the contract was adopted.
“Now I have a unit that feels valued, and it’s taken time,” Pullen said. “Over the last two years, between monthly meetings with the superintendent and connecting with the school board, communication has played a big part in getting here. I’m grateful and thankful I could be a part of it.”
It’s also taken time for promises to be fulfilled in Battle Creek Public Schools, but “in one fell swoop,” a contract reopener in May moved teachers from the lowest paid in Calhoun County to among the highest from start of career to total career earnings, said Anthony Pennock, Battle Creek Education Association president.
The average increase that Battle Creek teachers will see reflected in paychecks this school year is a whopping $11,400, Pennock said. “The reaction has been complete shock and disbelief. I’ve had teachers say they were thinking about retiring and now they decided to hold off for a couple years.”
After years of declining enrollments, last year the central city district experienced an uptick in student counts – even as unfilled teacher positions throughout the year ballooned to 50, nearly 20% of the district’s 270 full-time teaching positions.
Six years ago the district embarked on a transformative rebranding effort to become a truly restorative justice-focused, trauma-informed community school district with financial assistance from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
The new pay structure will build on that work to further Battle Creek’s goal to be a destination district by attracting more job applicants, in addition to students.
“We had a promise from the district that said ‘give us a chance to turn around enrollment and get our financial house in order, and teachers will be the first to get the benefits of that,’” Pennock said.
Now he promises to continue working hand-in-hand with support staff unions to ensure custodians, drivers, secretaries, paras, food service workers – all school employees – will share in promised financial rewards following years of sacrifice and hard work, Pennock said.
“This is the power of a collective actually coming together and lifting our voices to make sure our stories are told at that table,” he said. “It’s a very proud moment.”
In Chippewa Valley a contract reopener also paid dividends for teachers – but in a district already among the better-paying ones in the region. “This is a district that is very stable, where the school board values educators and wants to retain the great staff they have,” said MEA Director Timm Couto.
The new agreement delivers a 6% on-schedule pay hike over the next two years, plus steps and added off-schedule payments, concluding in 2025-26 with a step and 3% off-schedule payment – for a total increase of 17% over three years, said Chippewa Valley Education Association President Cara Konicek.
On the support staff side, the northern metro Detroit district also has used steady increases in per-pupil funding from the state to shore up pay for custodial, maintenance, food service and transportation employees – with drivers set to receive on average a 21% increase this year.
“This is pushing us up to where we should have been for years now, and it’s a very good thing,” Konicek said. “We are grateful to the school board for placing this value on retaining their people.”
Across the state in Kentwood, southeast of Grand Rapids, the same factors drove talks that produced average salary increases of 6.5% in the first year, 4% in the second year, and 3.5% in the third year of a new contract, said Kentwood Education Association President Mariterese Jenkins.
One of the largest and most diverse districts in the state with 17 buildings and 80 languages spoken, Kentwood will offer a starting salary of $50,000 and a top step for those with master’s degrees at $103,000, beginning in 2025, as part of the three-year deal.
The wins – combined with improvements in professional development and planning time, among others – came on the heels of a three-year effort to strengthen the local union.
In the months before the pandemic, Jenkins began working as a local member ambassador to help build membership and solidify bonds within the association and across the divide with management. She became president 18 months ago.
Building relationships with administration improved collaboration going into formal talks this spring, Jenkins said: “Both sides knew our greatest asset is our staff, so we wanted to work with the district to retain our current teachers and attract new ones by showing them they are valued.” Jenkins said.
In addition to salary, improvements to ancillary benefits drew positive reactions from members, who recognize increases in vision and dental benefits mean “more money in people’s pockets,” she added.
“Now is an exciting time in education with all of the things happening at the state level,” Jenkins said. “To be a part of helping to advocate for members is quite energizing for me.”
State-level changes translated to contract wins in the smallest districts also, agreed Nathan Fleshman, co-president of the East Jordan Education Association. The two-building district south of Charlevoix in northwest Michigan will increase teacher pay by 6%-3%-3% with steps in all three years of a new contract.
“We are seeing financial movement because of the work we did to achieve the gains we made in Lansing – electing the right people to office who support public education,” said Fleshman, who will start his fifth year teaching secondary science in the small-town district after six years downstate.
In addition to language fixes tightening up discipline procedures, members were most excited about the salary hikes combined with improvements to vision and dental benefits – which are now competitive with those offered in surrounding districts, including Charlevoix and Boyne City.
The goal was to make the close-knit community a destination district for teachers – not just a career stopover, Fleshman said. “People want to work in a place where they’re treated with dignity, where they’re respected and they’re valued.”
Improving members’ quality of life – and thereby keeping educators in the community – was also the goal of a three-year deal in Novi, which bumps starting pay from about $43,000 to $52,000 in year one and $56,500 in year two, according to Heather Burnside, president of the Novi Education Association.
With an all-new management team sitting across the table – including a new superintendent and three new assistant superintendents – a scheduled contract reopener one year ago produced a disappointing 2% raise, Burnside said.
In anticipation of negotiating a new contract this summer, the union president and superintendent conducted a listening tour at all of the district’s 10 school buildings. “With that, when we finally did get to the table this spring, the administrators had a good idea of what we wanted,” Burnside said.
The result was a reduction in the 28-step salary schedule to 17 steps in the first year and 15 in the second, with enough money added to ensure members at the lower and middle rungs will receive raises this year of 8-10%, and those at the top will see a 2% bump, Burnside said.
“This is going to go a long way to make people feel valued and hopefully keep them around for longer,” she said.
With trigger language likely to create healthy increases in the next two years, along with a restructuring and sizable improvement to Schedule B pay, plus a pre-Labor Day start in 2024 which allows for a fall break in the calendar, members are excited to see the shifts happening in the district, Burnside added.
“There is definitely some light at the end of the tunnel now with the changes legislatively that have happened,” she said. “It’s looking like the pendulum is finally swinging back.”