BARAGA - The Baraga Area Schools and the district's teachers are still far apart on this year's contract, with no new negotiations likely before January, when the two sides face off in a state mediated fact-finding hearing. Both sides expect to return to the bargaining table after the Jan. 9 hearing.
The district has reportedly asked teachers to take a 3 percent salary reduction, citing a $300,000 drop in annual district revenues from about $5.2 to $4.9 million, and a downward-trending, unpredictable federal funding situation.
Teachers don't feel they should have to take a cut, noting that while salaries haven't changed since 2011, they've already been moving backward by paying an increased percentage of their health insurance premiums.
"The loss of federal funding is a concern, but the fund balance the district has is there to use, not just to have in a bank account," said Copper Country Education Association Uniserv Director Terry LaJeunesse. "There isn't a district around with a fund balance as healthy as Baraga's that has asked for concessions like this."
That balance was estimated at $1.25 million at the end of the fiscal year in June, according to Baraga superintendent and K-2 principal Jennifer Lynn. However, the balance can drop much lower during the school year, she said, when the district needs to pay its bills before state and especially oft-delayed federal funds come in.
"We need to get our revenues to match expenditures on a regular basis," she said. "We don't want to incur the cost of borrowing money just to pay our monthly bills."
The fact finding, according to LaJeunesse, is a public hearing run by an independent, state-appointed fact-finder. That individual hears and questions testimony from both sides and eventually makes recommendations on an equitable way to settle the contract.
LaJeunesse said the MEA requested the hearings after several less formal mediation sessions failed to bring the sides together.
"They've been unwilling to negotiate," he said. "The last mediator asked if another mediation might help and the board said no, they were pretty well set in their offer."
The fact-finder's recommendations aren't binding, but Lynn said she thinks they might get negotiations back on track.
"An objective person with experience with this will give both sides of the table some insight to consider," she said. "I think this is a healthy part of the process and could lead to some good results."
Lynn added that daily life at school has been business-as-usual while the contract fight has dragged on.
"I really feel like on a day-to-day operational basis, everyone's been very professional and positive with each other," she said.
"Everyone's kept the negotiations on the negotiating table, kept the focus on the students and treated each other with respect."
The Baraga Area Schools' board is not expected to take any action on the contract situation at tonight's meeting, at 7 p.m. in the Baraga High School library.