Union Members Stand Up in Emotional Board Testimony

Engagement * Bargaining * Advocacy * Justice * Empowerment * Support

by Brenda Ortega
MEA Voice Editor

Mike Eyre has been a middle school history teacher for 25 years, and he’s served nearly two decades as president of his local union. But even Eyre was moved by a recent turn of events that he and his Union City members influenced through their passionate advocacy.

L-R Sherri Falkner, Mike Eyre and Christine Bigelow

Over the summer the school board was conducting a superintendent search, looking to move the 1,000-student district in rural Branch County in a positive new direction after a difficult couple of years. Of three candidates, one was a lifelong resident and 36-year employee of the district, and many union members spoke before the interviews urging the board to hire the local candidate.

“We needed someone aware of Union City issues who had our interests in mind, who didn’t want to come as a stepping stone, someone who’s been here his entire career and would finish here,” Eyre said.

When two candidates returned for a second interview, members again advocated for Chris Katz—a longtime teacher and coach in the district who was then Information Technology Director and a finalist.

“A lot of our members spoke at the meeting, and not just dues-paying members. We encouraged members of the bargaining unit who were not dues-paying members to speak their mind, too.”

After the interviews, the board deliberated briefly and voted 5-2 to hire the other candidate.

“Everybody in the audience became very upset. We had six or eight members get up to give public comment after they’d already called and offered the other candidate the job. Even people at home watching it on Facebook Live drove up to the meeting and had time to put their two-cents in.”

One after another, members spoke in what local radio station WTVB described as emotional testimony: “I think it’s a shame you didn’t give Chris Katz an opportunity to lead, as he has given his life and his career to this school, and I think you got it wrong,” says one woman identified only as a staff member in a recording on the station’s website.

“We had members speaking to the board in tears,” Eyre said. “It was that important to stand up and say, ‘You’ve got to listen to us.’”

Eyre—whose two children, 11 and 13, attend Union City schools where he grew up—waited until last. Then he stepped to the podium and reminded the board the meeting hadn’t adjourned; they could still make a different choice. All they needed was a motion to reconsider.

One board member made a motion to adjourn. Another motioned to reconsider the vote, which passed 4-3. After more talk, as the five-hour meeting stretched toward 11 p.m., the board reversed direction and selected Katz in another 4-3 vote—followed by a 7-0 vote to support the new superintendent.

Eyre credited members for the win. “It took a lot of them sticking their neck out to say this was the wrong choice for the district—even at the risk of it being held against them later—and that in turn won us a lot of support from the community.”

Sixth-grade teacher Sherri Falkner said she testified “to speak up for Chris, not because I was angry with board members, just disappointed in their decision. Chris’s interview spoke to what I was looking for in a superintendent.”

All involved want what’s best for kids, agreed fifth-grade teacher Christine Bigelow, who also testified: “With the leadership of Chris Katz, I feel confident for the first time in a long time that all of these great pieces of our school system will be working together. And together great things are possible!”

Read more #UnionStrong stories: 

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Plan Points the Way to Solidarity, Strength, Success

Flint Teachers Unite for Contract Win

Local Unions Report Successful Bargains Across State

Local Actions Combat Bullying Behavior at Board Meetings

Union Caucus in Ann Arbor Targets Special Education Issues

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MEA Helps Carries Member Through Twists and Turns

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