H-PT union contract agreement leaves hard feelings: teacher

HOUGHTON — The Houghton-Portage Township Schools Board approved a one-year contract with teachers at its meeting Monday night, as one teacher bemoaned what he said has become a rancorous negotiating relationship between teachers and the board.

The one-year contract with the Michigan Education association includes 1.5 percent base increase for all teachers, and a 1.25 percent step increase, accounting for about $71,000, said board President Brad Baltensperger.

Teachers also receive a one-time bonus of $500, which Baltensperger said accounts for about a 1 percent increase for the teachers in the district.

The district will continue to use a hard cap for insurance. The district will pay increases in insurance, Baltensperger said.

Baltensperger said additional salary items added included a middle-school cross country coach and more money for teachers who cover study halls. Contract increases will account for about $241,000, about 71 percent of the $339,000 increase in state funds, Baltensperger said.

“I don’t want to say that’s because of this contract, but we will need to reduce our fund equity in order to pay for the necessary cost to the district this year,” he said.

In an individual statement to the board, high school science teacher Tony Schwaller said the relationship between teachers and the board had gone from the best he’d seen to the worst.

“The teachers are the foundation of this school. and that foundation is crumbling,” he said. “Morale among the teachers and the staff is worse than I’ve ever experienced. I personally know over half a dozen teachers who are, I’ll put this the nice way, carefully considering their options.”

Schwaller said after the meeting the issue had begun several years ago when the district made changes to insurance that gave teachers an effective pay decrease.

“Most teachers last year took home less money than they did six years prior,” he said.

The district seems “headed for an iceberg,” with the number of potential departures, Schwaller said. He suggested the district begin negotiations for the next contract in January. After the meeting, he said the high point in teacher-board relations had come when the board left professional negotiators out of the process.

“We had two people from the union sit down with the superintendent and business manager, hashed out a deal before the school year ended,” he said. “It wasn’t perfect for either side, but it was reasonable for both sides.”

In a follow-up email, Schwaller said he and several other teachers had a “productive and respectful” discussion with two board members after the meeting.

Ruth Ryynanen, an English teacher at Houghton High School and a member of the teachers’ negotiating team, clarified after Baltensperger’s comments that the step increases Baltensperger discussed had been known to the board before negotiations started.

“That’s not money that all of a sudden came out of nowhere … I just want the public to understand that they knew they were going to have to pay that amount to their teachers this year,” she said.

Ryynanen said after the meeting the negotiating team was happy the contract had been resolved, and hoped to begin negotiations for next year as soon as possible.

Superintendent Doreen Klingbeil said she had no specific response to Schwaller’s comments, but said both side do their best to keep the district in a good place.

“We have to be fiscally responsible and make sure we’re providing an education that is going to be fair and excellent to our community,” she said. “We work with what we have. We feel very proud to be here and work with our community and work with our students and our staff.”

Klingbeil said the district may consider returning to the process favored by Schwaller.

“There’s different ways to approach negotiations, and every district does it differently,” she said. “We’re always open to looking at how that process works.”