ONTONAGON - Long-time Ontonagon Area School district teacher Ken Raisanen was recalled back from layoff Monday evening during a special board meeting among public pleas and heated debate.
The board met Monday to discuss faculty recalls, hearing from many of the more than 35 people in attendance about concerns for how the district is being run, including laying off a teacher with the most seniority in the district.
During the first 40 minutes of the meeting, board President Dean Juntunen read aloud more than 15 letters of support for teacher Ken Raisanen, who was issued a pink slip last spring along with a handful of other teachers. The board then opened the topic of recalling Raisanen up for discussion during which Juntunen asked the public to consider the tough decisions school boards face especially when state funding is low.
Stacey Kukkonen/Daily Mining Gazette
Ontonagon Area Schools Board of Education Trustee Bruce Johanson, far right, points at Superintendent Gray Webber, not pictured, at a special board meeting Monday evening at the school. Also shown are trustees Tanya Weisinger and Charles Yost.
"Ken Raisanen has made the statement that it is not his fault that we are in (this) current financial predicament and that is absolutely correct," he said. "But it's also correct that none of us are at fault for our financial predicament."
The district lost about 90 students when the Smurfit-Stone Container Corporation closed, and then funding from the state decreased significantly. As a result, the district has been struggling to produce a balanced budget, issuing pink slips in the spring and recalling teachers back from layoff in the fall if the budget allows.
Raisanen's layoff, however, didn't sit well with the public.
Juntunen offered a series of financial possibilities to the board with concern to bringing Raisanen, a veteran teacher of 36 years, back to the district. The original plan was unsuccessful in a board grievance hearing. The next step would be for the board to go into arbitration to settle the situation between Raisanen and the district. Winning in arbitration would still equal costs to the district, including the cost of arbitration and Raisanen's unemployment costs.
"That may actually break our budget," he said. "That would be the best-case scenario financially for the district."
If the district lost in arbitration, Raisanen would need to be reinstated and the district would need to pay arbitration, legal and back pay costs, being the worst-case scenario for the district. The third plan was to recall Raisanen, breaking the budget and requiring budget adjustments. Juntunen said the chances for the district winning a case where it laid off its longest-serving teacher are not good.
"My recommendation is to recall Ken Raisanen, bust our budget and we will have to make budget adjustments," he said.
As an accountant, member Nancy Mattson said she was concerned about breaking the budget, considering how tight the budget currently is.
"I'd like to point out to everyone that, calling back a teacher of Mr. Raisanen's salary level, we could eliminate our entire athletic budget and still not save enough money," she said. "I caution everyone to think twice about plunging us into a deficit budget."
Juntunen said whether Raisanen was recalled or not, the district would still have to break and revise the budget.
In discussion, Superintendent Gray Webber said while it was clear members of the public had one opinion, he reminded the public of the board's intentions.
"I understand that the audience is pretty well set in their minds in regards to this situation but I also feel that I think the board and myself have been poorly treated," he said. "It's been assumed we made some egregious error."
Webber said the board is forced to make decisions based on the current funding available, and often those decisions include making cuts.
"We cannot do the things we like to do, we cannot be nice to everyone with no money," he said. "We just can't do it. So we have to put the students above everybody else. And this was done."
Members of the public challenged the board's practice of employing a superintendent, principal and assistant principal, pointing specifically to a top-heavy administration. One member in attendance asked Webber how the district was able to hire an assistant principal, also on the agenda for the evening, while raising concerns over finances. After a heated debate between Webber and the woman, who accused Webber of laughing at her concerns, the superintendent said he had taken a pay cut last year and funding for administration has been on the decline.
Currently, the district pays for 1.83 administrators, including Webber at part-time, earning a salary of $55,000 and principal Jim Bobula earning a salary of $70,000, neither including benefits.
Also during discussion, Webber asked trustee Bruce Johanson if he thought the layoff was wrong from the beginning and said Johanson voted for the resolution to lay off teachers.
"Let's understand this, Mr. Webber. You produced a resolution before you presented a layoff list," Johanson said.
Webber asked if Johanson would have voted for any of the layoffs. Johanson said he voted against the resolution.
"What I don't like about this whole situation is that you advocated for two years in a row to lay them all off, put them all in the same boat," Webber said.
Johanson said to be fair, he did suggest giving pink slips to every teacher and evaluating the entire situation as to who to recall and Webber said he resisted as layoffs are painful and should not be taken lightly.
Webber said Johanson, who is on the grievance committee, is also supposed to side with the school board but was seen winking at Raisanen during the grievance hearing.
"You're supposed to be representing the board on these things," Webber said. "I'm sorry, but when you winked across the mediation table at Mr. Raisanen, giving him assurances that he's going to be back, I don't think you're representing the board."
Trustee Charles Yost, who said he saw the same thing, echoed Webber's accusations as shouting came from the audience members.
Johanson denied the accusation.
Webber said he has been villainized for the decision to lay off Raisanen, and in one instance read aloud by a letter writer during the meeting, Webber was accused of having a rift against Raisanen.
"To frame it as an improper layoff is false," he said. "The reason for so many here, tonight, I understand that. But improper it was not."
Webber recommended to the board not recalling Raisanen and said if he was to be recalled, he would utilize his hours and talents on the schedule.
"Such a recall would cost the district $100,000 if it is full-time," he said.
In addition, Webber said the board would be required to hire more kindergarten help for this school year and stressed the possibility of the state of Michigan bringing in an emergency manager if the district operated in a negative budget.
"Did you actually think Mr. Raisanen would go into the night quietly?" asked someone else from the audience.
The motion to recall Raisanen passed 5-2.
Earlier in the evening, Juntunen read letters in support from people in Ontonagon, Escanaba and other places, such as Minnesota.
Raisanen's daughter Elizabeth and wife Christine asked the board to rescind his layoff. Elizabeth Raisanen, a former student and currently a professional educator, said she had some of the best and most challenging classes taken with her father at OAS, including physical science, geography, astronomy, and earth and environmental sciences.
Christine Raisanen said she was shocked and appalled when she learned he was laid off.
"(Laying off) a highly qualified veteran teacher was no doubt a serious contractual violation," she said. "I am here to address the egregious professional and personal wrongs done to Ken Raisanen."
Christine said the board's decisions were not made with the kids' best interest in mind and said Ken provided extra enrichment learning and spent much of his time working with students, activities she said were done without acknowledgment from administration.
"Money to support these efforts, field trips and special programs comes from vending machines, which the superintendent has fought hard against, and which in my mind, the very probable cause for this extremely personal vendetta being waged against my husband," she said. "It is important for school board members to see the truth for themselves, to look for the facts and not simply accept what is being put forth by the superintendent."
Following the letter read by Christine Raisanen, the crowd erupted in applause.
Other letters came from family members, former students and members of the community expressing disappointment in the board.
Also at the meeting, the board voted to recall teacher Jon Uotila and add the title of assistant principal to his duties.